Carl Melford, head of Gila County’s Emergency Response Department, is grateful schools have been out during emergencies, like the Bush Fire last summer, but he knows it’s only a matter of time before that isn’t the case.
Melford announced Gila County needs more options for evacuation shelters in northern Gila County during the annual pre-season fire meeting on March 25.
So far, only the Payson High School dome and a LDS church in Payson fit the criteria, but soon they might not.
“It’s a new concern in the sense that we are now seeing larger and smaller cases of evacuations,” said Melford.
Adding to the increase in emergencies, the need to continue social distancing and mask wearing because of the pandemic.
“The expectations of privacy are huge,” said Melford. “It is Red Cross’ goal to let those people feel at home.”
As Rim Country faces a predicted grim fire year, Melford has asked northern Gila County organizations and businesses to help him find more evacuation shelters to prepare for a year he expects to be very busy.
Melford explained a shelter serves those needing overnight accommodations in a safe place out of the path of the emergency.
“Accessibility and space are the top priorities,” said Melford. “I like to have showers for a multi-day event ... although showers are not required.”
With only two locations in the Payson area, Melford says he needs more location options as well. More locations offer a chance to be out of the path of the emergency, rather than continually moving away from it.
“The metaphor I used to explain this is, if a car is coming at you, are you going to jump backwards or move to the side?” he said.
This philosophy determined where Melford set up evacuation shelters during the June 2020 Bush Fire. Many questioned Melford’s choice to put people in Globe rather than Payson.
“Globe is an hour away, but that (was) not the direction the fire is going,” said Melford.
He recognizes it is stressful enough to move once. To move a second time only heightens fears.
“I’ve actually discussed the possibility of moving north into Yavapai or Coconino counties. Distance makes it not a great option, but if it’s the only one open I have to look at that,” he said. “There is hesitation to move people south — and of course Tonto Basin and Roosevelt are too small to accommodate.”
Another challenge, the large number of animals Gila County residents own.
“The Red Cross says you can’t have animals and people in the same space,” said Melford.
In the past, the county has used Payson’s Event Center for stock animals, but for smaller animals such as birds, dogs and cats, he’s struggling to find a solution.
In the southern part of the county, Melford has the choice between few school districts and the uses of the county’s fairgrounds.
“The options there are huge,” he said.
But not in the north.
“I dread the day that we have an evacuation during school hours,” he said, but his other concern is, “if we had a fire in the area of Payson schools, where are we going to send people?”
Melford said private businesses, churches, etc. are welcome to reach out to him if they have space available at firstname.lastname@example.org.