Planning Ahead Imperative In Case Of Evacuation

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In regard to the current fire danger in Rim Country I want to offer some perspective that may be of use here. In May 2000 my wife and I evacuated during the 47,000-acre wildfire that burned part of Los Alamos, N.M., and forested areas of the national nuclear lab there. The entire county of 18,000 people, which is geographically small and mountainous, not unlike the Payson area, was evacuated. We were out of our house in the bedroom community of White Rock for four days, though the main Los Alamos townsite was closed for a week. The initial evacuation of Los Alamos caused 12,000 people to depart in just four hours, many staying with friends in White Rock. The second evacuation of White Rock at 1:30 a.m. however, caused a six-hour traffic jam on the one remaining escape route, since fire had closed the other exit over the Jemez Mountains. There was concern that the smoke potential could contain hazardous contamination due to historical outdoor testing at the laboratory. White Rock was evacuated due to fire nearing a nuclear facility, though there was never actual radiological contamination in the smoke.

I had retired two years before as the Navy’s emergency preparedness liaison officer to the state of New Mexico, so had experience in emergency planning with the National Guard, all U.S. naval facilities in the state, and the state’s emergency operations center. Nevertheless, my wife and I were suddenly refugees and out of contact with neighbors, friends, coworkers and managers. Everyone scattered to the four winds, some to Colorado, Texas, and other parts of New Mexico. We felt isolated and without guidance.

Some of the lessons learned that can apply to a wildfire here are:

  1. Have a plan made in advance with what to do, what to take, and where to go in event of wildfire or other disaster.

  2. Local emergency managers and their families may themselves become displaced refugees housed out of the area.

  3. Evacuation may be unexpected and even at night, so preplanning, gathering of the most important possessions, and loading of vehicles in advance is important if a fire is within five miles.

  4. Wind grows stronger near a fire and can toss burning embers over a mile, causing spot fires beyond fire lines. This can spread the fire quickly into unprotected areas. The fire at Los Alamos advanced seven miles in one day due to 65 mph winds.

  5. Fire can race down canyons and up slopes due to local wind effects, quickly cutting off escape routes far from town.

  6. Populated areas with one escape route are especially at risk, and early preparations to evacuate are critical.

  7. The public must be informed of evacuee contact services to account for their whereabouts and condition. This can be done via public media, official news conferences, Red Cross shelters, churches, public signs, and word of mouth. However, the information must be compiled and collated somewhere.

  8. Cell phones are helpful so long as necessary cell phone numbers are pre-programmed in them. Public phone directories list home phones (but not cell phones) of people who may have already evacuated.

  9. Local government offices may be closed due to evacuation. What if you need their services or information? Answer: you wait.

  10. Postal service may be nonexistent or delayed for many days, so online bill paying and banking is helpful.

  11. Plan ahead for delayed paychecks by saving enough to live on for at least a week. Has your business survived?

  12. Insurance companies require proof of loss and of value. Photograph your possessions and list their value. Keep receipts of valuable items. In regard to replacement cost, consider the effect of inflation since their purchase.

  13. A house fire usually consumes everything but sheet metal, pipes, bricks, and maybe foundation. Aluminum wheels on vehicles may melt. Records and all else left at home will likely be gone.

  14. The elderly, especially, need the help of their family, friends and neighbors to prepare and to cope with disaster.

I could go on, but you get the idea: plan ahead or risk being adrift in a sea of chaos and confusing information during a disaster.

I wonder if the homeowner shutting off utilities is reasonable?

Editor’s note: Jim Rasmussen, battalion chief with the Payson Fire Department, responded to Mynard’s question about utilities:

The question on the utilities — shut off the gas, but the water and electricity should be left on so that emergency personnel can use the water with your attached hoses to fight spot fires if they are there when those occur or refill their water tanks. Lights should be left on when you evacuate (this would help emergency personnel locate your house in the smoky or dark conditions of night).

Most emergency evacuation information sites also recommend that doors are closed and left unlocked and a note on the door is a definite plus, closing all windows and turning off HVAC systems is also a best practice. If time permits, the removal of flammable drapes/curtains and shades should be done. Non-flammable shades should be closed. Flammable furniture should be moved away from outside walls and windows.

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