ashland.news
July 18, 2024

Only a drill — this time: Volunteer emergency responders role-play response to approaching fire

Ashland Emergency Management Coordinator Kelly Burns explains the training scenario to CERT volunteers before sending them out on the streets of evacuation Zone 8, the Railroad District, to survey the area and talk to residents. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
June 14, 2024

Community Emergency Response Team, firefighters, police, run annual evacuation drill across Ashland

By Craig Breon for Ashland.news

Kelly Burns, Ashland’s emergency management coordinator, set the scenario: A wildfire starts near Hornbrook, just a few miles over the California border from Ashland, and east winds threaten to blow the blaze Ashland’s direction. Then a quick quiz on an oft-confused fact — Burns questions the assembled volunteers and, after some hesitation, all agree that an east wind blows from the east, not towards the east.

Thus started Ashland’s annual evacuation drill on Wednesday. Volunteers from the city’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) assembled for a quick refresher on the basics of disaster response before dividing into teams and fanning out across the Railroad District for some door-knocking and community education. Ashland police were practicing a similar drill in other parts of the city.

A CERT volunteer listens to instructions for the canvassing training exercise in the Fire Station No. 1 conference room.

CERT volunteers meet monthly to train on topics such as disaster preparedness, fire safety, search and rescue, basic medical care and radio communications. Those volunteers, in turn, are asked to reach out to others in their neighborhoods or workplaces when an emergency threatens, providing a vital supplement to first responders such as police and firefighters, who will be stretched thin in the event of an actual emergency.

Longtime Ashland residents need little reminder of how quickly a serious emergency can develop, and how devastating the results can be. The September 2020 Almeda Fire raged through more than 3,000 acres of north Ashland, Talent, Phoenix and Jackson County, damaging or destroying more than 2,500 homes and 600 businesses and leading to three deaths.

The city of Ashland is split up into 10 evacuation zones. It’s good to know your number before an emergency strikes. To see a searchable map, click here.

According to the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, “Oregon has never in recorded history experienced a fire of this magnitude in a primarily urban environment.” A walk along any of the more than 11 miles of Bear Creek and its tributaries impacted by the Almeda Fire still reveals hundreds of charred yet still-standing snags.

In evacuations, communicating the threat level of an emergency to local residents is vital. At Wednesday’s drill, Burns and Syd Jenkins, fire and life-safety specialist with Ashland Fire & Rescue, reviewed the three evacuation levels:

  • Level one: Be ready — Have a plan and go-kit ready; stay informed through local radio and news; and consider moving early if you or your pets cannot move quickly.
  • Level two: Be set — Review your primary evacuation route and alternate route where available; grab your go-kit and pack your car or bicycle; and leave if you feel unsafe.
  • Level three: Go now! — Leave without delay; do not gather belongings or protect your home; and do not return until authorities say it is safe.
Ashland’s CERT volunteers look at the evacuation area map before conducting evacuation canvassing practice Wednesday. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Though perhaps not needed, Burns took time to remind the CERT volunteers of the reality of our region before sending them into the field: “We live in the Pacific Northwest, and we are in the age of fire.”

Following Team 4 volunteers as they worked their way down 7th Street, team members Charlie Delgado, Barb Settles and Jeremy Brinkley began knocking on doors. The neighborhood had been canvassed previously, with residents interested in participating in the drill asked to hang one side of a flyer on their doors. The participation rate was impressive, with flyers hanging on so many doors that Team 4 could not finish their territory before being called back to the firehouse. Later, asked about this high rate of engagement, Burns said simply, “Welcome to Ashland, right?”

CERT volunteers Lucille Burke, Cat Gould and Kim Rosmaier talk to a resident as part of the training exercise Wednesday evening. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Delgado, Settles and Brinkley took turns informing residents of the scenario and how to respond. At first, a level 1 threat faced the town, with the make-believe Hornbrook fire still many miles away and east winds not predicted to kick up until the next day. The team recorded responses, including homes needing particular attention due to a resident with mobility concerns. Teams periodically communicated with their home base through hand-held radios.

CERT volunteers Cherie Harpell and Reggie Windham talk with a resident of evacuation Zone 8 as part of a training exercise Wednesday evening. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Then, in the midst of the exercise, a radio message from Burns changed the scenario to a Level 2 warning. East winds had arrived early and the fire was heading towards Ashland. Team 4 adjusted the information they provided to the participating residents, and their voices took on a more urgent tone. On two occasions, residents needed reminding that this was just a drill and no actual fire existed.

Back at Fire Station 1, during the debrief following the field work, one volunteer admitted that the exercise was “nerve-wracking.” Some confusion arose over a Level 2 warning — should the CERT volunteers advise people to leave? Burns said the ultimate decision to leave, prior to a mandatory evacuation, is up to the residents.

Ashland firefighter Sydney Jenkins explains the process CERT volunteers were to use to record the results of their canvassing of the Railroad District. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

CERT is always looking for new volunteers. To sign up, contact the program coordinator at 541-552-2226 or email the CERT office. CERT Basic Training is held at least once per year.

Tips for emergency preparedness:

  • Know your zone. Ashland is divided into 10 zones. At times, only some of these zones will be given an evacuation level notice.
  • In a declared emergency, pets can be left at the Jackson County Expo at 1 Peninger Road, Central Point.
  • Know the wind direction. Generally, winds tend to blow toward Medford in the morning and toward California in the afternoon.
  • If you cannot evacuate the city, look in your neighborhood for an open space largely devoid of flammable materials, such as a large parking lot or areas of the SOU campus.
  • Practice—How long does it take you to get your essentials into your car? How long to get out of town?
  • More information about emergency preparedness and evacuation can be found at Ready.gov.
  • For information more specific to Ashland and the Rogue Valley, go to AshlandOregon.gov/betterprepared.

Email Ashland resident, consultant and former environmental law instructor Craig Breon at ckbtravel@earthlink.net.

CERT volunteers Cat Gould, Lucille Burke and Kim Rosmaier check their notes as they walk through the Railroad District. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
CERT volunteers Paul Collins (blue vest) and Jim Thompson talk to a resident who volunteered to participate in the training exercise. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Paul Collins (blue vest) talks with a resident while firefighter Sydney Jenkins and CERT volunteer Jim Thompson observe. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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