Payson Region Prepares For Devastating Wildfire

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Payson is preparing for the worst as the threat of a devastating wildfire continues to loom over the Rim country.

Most recently, the Payson Police Department released a 20-page emergency evacuation plan, the second in the city's history.

The first was drafted in the winter of 2002, a time when fire officials were certain that the summer fire season would be particularly dangerous, but never expected the Rodeo-Chediski's immensity or sheer power.

Now, as fuels for a fire have intensified and Rim country residents recoil at the thought of losing their homes, officials continue to ready for danger.

"We are going to have fires," Payson Fire Department Chief Marty deMasi said without hesitation. "There is no doubt about it."

The Plan

The evacuation operations plan, developed and modified by Payson Police Department Sgt. Tom Tieman, is an attempt to prepare for every possible contingency a wildfire could produce.

The highest priority is getting residents out of danger as quickly and safely as possible, Tieman said.

To do that, there exist "team members" who will physically go to residents' homes in their assigned areas, inform residents that they are in danger and that they must evacuate. Once a house is completely evacuated, team members will tie a white ribbon in a clearly visible location on the property. If a resident refuses to evacuate, which officials cannot prohibit, a blue ribbon will identify their homes and let rescuers know people are inside.

Residents who choose to evacuate then go to or are transported by school bus to the evacuation site, most likely Rim Country Middle School.

Besides the evacuation site, the emergency operation center (EOC) will be the most highly-trafficked area.

Tieman put it simply: "The (evacuation) center is where the care is for people. The EOC is care for the operation."

Payson Police Lt. Don Engler is one of many local officials who will play a pivotal role if Payson is evacuated. He said he will be "working the front lines" at the EOC, ensuring everything runs smoothly.

"I know the evacuation plan will work," Engler said. "I believe the plan will allow us to get done what we need to get done."

The plan also anticipates concerns ranging from counseling evacuees and directing traffic to evacuating domestic animals and transporting the handicapped.

"(The plan) covers everything," Tieman said.

Lorna Hanson, a patient care administrator at RTA Hospice, is in charge of transporting hospice and disabled patients to Manzanita Manor if an evacuation becomes necessary.

"RTA would always have on database all special needs people in the district," she said.

That is, if they are registered.

Hanson said there are currently 165 special needs residents on their database, with anywhere from 500 to 1,200 more to go.

"We need to help these patients understand that they're not out there alone," she said. "If Payson phones me and says we've got an area that is going to be evacuated, I would immediately get a list off the computer to see who is there (in danger zone). Then we evacuate."

But Hanson added if a special needs resident is not in RTA's database, she has no way of knowing where they are and what they need.

She said special needs residents may be concerned with relating their case histories and their condition to RTA. However, she added that if they register, their information will be kept private and that it is vital they are all cared for in the event of an emergency.

"We have just as much responsibility to them as we do to our own families because we're care-giving and they deserve just as much," she said.

Hanson said special needs residents will be transported by school bus and ambulance depending on their physical condition.

The phone number for registration is (928) 472-6340.

The Center of it All

"Once they've evacuated homes, and people and their animals --hatever it takes --t then gears toward the (evacuation) center itself," Tieman said. "We can put people up and provide for what we need to provide for with as much comfort as we can; eating, sleeping, showering, and getting information."

Tieman said police officers, medical professionals, parks and recreation staff, traffic control officers and numerous volunteers will be on hand in order to accomplish the myriad tasks involved with an evacuation.

The police department also has set up communication with The Salvation Army and the American Red Cross to bear some of the burden of running an evacuation center.

Jim Puza, director of emergency disaster services in The Salvation Army's southwest division, is representing the organization in his correspondence with the Payson Police.

"We pray that the need for establishing a disaster shelter never occurs but remain committed to supporting you if it does," Puza wrote in a letter to Police Chief Gordon Gartner. "Depending on the circumstances, it might be necessary for us to seek additional agency support in providing beds and bedding, but we should be able to handle everything with regard to food, clothes, toiletries and counseling."

He said that because The Salvation Army has a seat at the State Emergency Operating Center, it can request that Payson's evacuation center be "designated as a state-approved shelter which would possibly make it available for emergency funding and/or reimbursement."

Last summer, officials were able to practice running an evacuation center when residents from the Heber area were successfully evacuated to Payson during the Rodeo-Chediski fire.

Payson Unified School District Superintendent Herb Weissenfels was among the staff that ran last year's evacuation site at the middle school.

He said, "The community itself pooled and worked together for the benefit of others. And I think it taught us there's probably nothing out there that we can't do if we're willing to work together. To see and be around people that just lost their homes had quite an impact on us," he said. "It made us desire to be very willing to open up and help other people. To see some of their courage and their convictions and how they got through things, I think we learned more about our fellow man."

Gartner said that if an evacuation does become necessary, many evacuees will need counseling.

Communication is Key

The evacuation plan hinges on the combined efforts of not only counselors and other evacuation site staff, but also on the communication among larger entities like the Payson police and fire departments, and possibly the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

"Communication is key to the entire thing," Tieman said. "If we don't talk to each other, you've got a mess out there. The fire department is going this way, the police department is going that way, and next thing you know, you're going to have a bottleneck. If you don't coordinate and talk to each other, it doesn't work."

Tieman said lack of communication made the situation at last summer's evacuation site a bit sticky.

"There were some big problems last year," he said. "When the Forest Service said they were evacuating people in Heber and Forest Lakes Estates ... you need to move now and open things up and get it rolling. You need certain equipment; sleeping bags, cots, food, toiletries. That's what we were looking for on some assistance, but we didn't get that assistance."

Tieman said that he made requests to the Red Cross for supplies for the evacuees, but didn't get them until six days after residents arrived, only four days before they left.

He said that the Red Cross told him the evacuation site was not an official one and to send evacuees to the high school in Globe.

Tieman said he just couldn't uproot the evacuees again and move them another 80 miles further from their homes.

"You can shut your evacuation center and kick them out on the street or you can keep it running," Tieman said. "We kept ours running and they (Red Cross) came to us."

Tieman added that when the Red Cross finally declared the evacuation site an official one and arrived in Payson, their "big-city" mannerisms hurt local residents' feelings.

"When they finally came in, the people of Payson were cut out," Tieman said. "Up until that point, we basically did it on our own and treated evacuees like they were family. But when you get a big organization, that family atmosphere changes drastically. "

While Tieman said the Red Cross may have stepped on Payson's toes a few times last summer, he added that he is talking with them now in anticipation of similar communication problems if the town needs to evacuate this year.

"We're trying to make it work smoother and work together instead of them saying, ‘You're cut out,' " Tieman said.

Communication problems not only occur with large organizations like the Red Cross, but also with smaller agencies like the fire department, deMasi said.

"Communication is one of the most troublesome spots," he said.

He added communication issues complicated the department's wildfire drill in March.

During the drill, there were three major areas of focus: the command center, wildfire, and evacuation site. While the command center could communicate with both the firefighters on scene and the evacuation center, the latter two were not able to contact each another.

"It wasn't the ideal system," deMasi said.

He said he is currently trying to locate a radio system that would allow all parties to communicate.

deMasi explained that the March drill was just one of many the fire department's conducts to work out kinks like the radio system so officials are more prepared for a real emergency."

Stumbling Blocks

In a recent interview with the Roundup, former U.S. Forest Service Public Information Officer Jim Paxon emphasized the importance of evacuation plans.

"Evacuation plans and disaster plans is one place where we're woefully short of," he said. "Sixty people died in Oakland in 1991. They had evacuation plans, but they weren't for fire."

Paxon added that oftentimes residents refuse to evacuate in an effort to save their homes and thus, endanger rescuers' lives.

"There's not an acre, or a tree, or a house worth a firefighter's life," Paxon said. "One of the things we want you to do when it comes time to evacuate, is to evacuate. Firefighters are very moral, service-oriented people. We divert firefighters from the firefighting effort to go save some knothead that wouldn't leave because we can't let them cook in their own stew. We just can't do that."

deMasi agreed with Paxon: "It's kind of understandable why somebody would want to stay. But it creates more problems for the firefighters because that's more people we have to keep an eye on to make sure that they come out of it OK."

deMasi added that while the fire and police departments will continue to prepare for an evacuation, it's really up to residents to prevent fire from consuming their homes.

"If they've got a lot of brush, trees, grass or weeds, they need to clean up their place," he said in reference to what is called firewise landscaping. "(That) will make it so much easier for us to defend their property. If it's in too bad a shape, there is nothing we can do. We're not going to risk firefighters' lives for property. We just won't do that."

The Regional Payson Area Project, a consortium of fire departments partially paid for by a state land department grant, visits residents' houses for free and tells them what they need to do to make their land firewise. It also sponsors Sunday dumping days when residents can go to Buckhead Mesa Landfill to dump their brush and timber for free.

Paxon also urged residents to do the work before the fire ignites.

"We lost 470 homes and 16 business to the Rodeo-Chediski fire," he said. "Half of those homes could have been saved if there had been one weekend's worth of work around the home. Isn't that a tragedy?"

Tieman said he is not sure when or where a fire may occur, but that Payson should prepare for the worst.

"The dryness, the fire danger, what's happening out there and what we've seen so far with the Picture Fire and the Aspen Fire -- anything like that can happen here," he said. "I don't think we can kick back our heels and relax. We need to be prepared, because if it's going to happen, it's going to happen fast."

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