Are you ready to get out?
EAGLE COUNTY – Given the size and rapid spread of the High Park fire near Fort Collins, local fire and emergency officials are ramping up their efforts to help people prepare for a day everyone hopes never comes – the day a neighborhood is evacuated due to a wildfire.
As of Monday afternoon, the High Park fire had burned nearly 40,000 acres, destroying at least 100 homes in the process. Denver TV news shows aired dramatic video Monday of two fire zone residents driving – fast – toward safety while nearby hillsides were ablaze.
Add that to a brief evacuation order issued June 8 for a neighborhood in Eagle, and people are starting to think about what to take in case the warning comes.
The town of Vail has had refrigerator magnets printed to remind residents what to do in an emergency. That small rectangle is packed with advice, including where to go, what to take and how to inform firefighters your home has been evacuated – by leaving on the porch light or putting something white in a window that’s visible from the street.
But being ready to leave also takes more planning than just sticking a magnet on the fridge.
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For instance, Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller recommended that residents take a brief, but sharp-eyed tour of their homes.
“You need to go room by room,” Miller said. “You need to decide, ‘I need these three things from the living room, these three things from the bedroom.'” Those items – including important documents, medicine and an irreplaceable heirloom or two – should be easily rounded up in case the order comes to clear out.
Eagle River Fire Protection District Chief Karl Bauer said families also need to talk about what they’ll do if mom and dad are at work and a teenage child is at home. Families need to talk about where they’ll go and how they’ll link up later.
In some cases, it’s going to be hard to get out of a neighborhood. A look at a street map of the Vail Valley shows any number of areas with just one way in.
Miller said a recent “tabletop” disaster exercise included having people hike out of neighborhoods when the road was closed. But Eagle County Emergency Manager Barry Smith said that’s not always possible, especially for the very young or old.
Smith said his office has been working with local metropolitan districts and homeowners’ associations about specific evacuation plans, including what to do if a road is blocked.
“If you can’t get out, you’ll need to go someplace to wait it out,” Smith said. The bad news, he added, is that people may be waiting for a while, since rescuers can’t get in if residents can’t get out.
That’s why it’s so important that future area neighborhoods have more than one way in.
Eric Lovgren, the county’s wildfire mitigation manager, said he’s been lobbying hard for that extra access in new or modified subdivisions, and hopes it’s something local governments pay attention to.
Of course, that doesn’t help those who now live in areas with just one way in. But, Lovgren said, there’s a lot people can do to help protect their families and property in case of a wildfire.
Besides being ready to evacuate, people can have a “FireWise” evaluation done for their property. Those evaluations come with any number of recommendations to improve either the safety or survivability of a home.
People also need to understand that, in most cases, they’ll have plenty of warning if a wildfire is approaching, Lovgren said.
Still, it’s likely there’s going to be a wildfire in or near a neighborhood this season.
“You can consider this a pre- pre-evacuation notice,” Smith said. “There’s a good chance we’ll be doing that somewhere this year.”
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.