Avon residents call for additional process, improvements to Wildridge emergency siren
A well-intentioned emergency siren in Wildridge hits multiple snafus immediately following its installation
All towns, municipalities and neighborhoods across Eagle County are preparing for what promises to be a threatening wildfire season. As part of its evacuation planning efforts, the town of Avon recently installed a siren at the top of Wildridge.
However, the lack of due process surrounding the siren’s installation caused concern for some Wildridge residents, bringing the subject to a head at Tuesday’s meeting of the Town Council.
According to Avon Town Manager Eric Heil, the initial idea for a siren in Wildridge came after the May 2019 wildfire evacuation drill. At that time, he said, the method of alerting the subdivision to fire danger and evacuation requirements was having Avon police officers go door to door as well as a number of digital alerts.
According to both Heil and Avon Police Chief Greg Daly, the incredibly time-consuming process could be improved upon, specifically with the addition of a siren in the neighborhood.
At that time, Heil began researching the siren project, including working with Sentry Sirens to evaluate possible locations for the installation. The ultimate destination for the siren — on Tract J at the top of the Wildridge Subdivision — was selected over O’Neal Spur Pocket Park and the Wildridge Fire Station as it most effectively covered the Wildridge subdivision.
A collection of emails between Chief Daly, Heil, Town Attorney Paul Wisor, Sentry Sirens, Town Engineer Justin Hildreth and other town staff members detailing the research and process can be found in the Town Council packet.
“Maybe part in my frustration with the process and part in some anxiety I have over the wildfire risk up there, I made an executive decision in January to go ahead and get this approved as a minor development plan,” Heil said. “Minor development plans can be approved administratively, and it’s the community development director’s discretion to refer that to the planning commission. … I used my town manager role and overrode all that.”
As Heil took charge of the siren project, it was never taken before the Town Council or the Planning and Zoning Commission, a move that displeased several community members and Town Council members.
“It’s interesting that something like this did not go to P&Z (Planning and Zoning), even for a quick review, because they could have noted everything we noticed today,” said Town Council member Lindsay Hardy, a former member of the Planning and Zoning Commission. “We have this resource of Planning and Zoning Commission, and I can’t believe we aren’t using it. I’m really disappointed in that.”
The emergency siren was installed in Wildridge just days before the May 25 test of the siren. It was at this time that the town also became aware of an electrical problem. The location selected for the emergency siren requires the siren to use an existing electrical line, which was deeded to the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and would likely not support both the siren and the water authority’s needs.
As a temporary solution, the town has rented a generator to use alongside the siren, something that will cost the town $863 a week. The council agreed that in order to get through the current wildfire season, this solution would remain through the summer.
While no long-term solution was determined at the meeting, the suggestions included either relocating the siren to another location with existing town electrical service or spending $30,000 to $40,000 to add an additional electrical line where the siren currently sits.
It was also at this time that several Wildridge residents, including Charley Viola, expressed concerns over both the lack of review for the project as well as its unsightly nature and its effectiveness.
“There should have been process here,” Viola said at the meeting. “It’s adding insult to injury for the proliferation of antennas popping up there. Now we have this new unsightly antenna up there, and while well-intentioned absolutely, I know Eric meant the best; lack of process is what got us here. All I ask is that you study alternatives, and take it through a process.”
Chief Daly supported the decision of the siren, stating that it would be “one of many tools” when it comes to evacuation and public safety.
“From our perspective, if it’s 3 a.m. and we have a wildland fire threatening Wildridge, how are we going to get about 1,500 people out of there out of 650 houses as fast as possible to save their lives and save their property. That’s generally what’s behind this,” Daly said.
The siren would be enacted in addition to the town’s other methods of emergency notice, which include EC Alerts, sending police officers through the neighborhood with their sirens on, messages on social media, reverse 911 calls, and using the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), often used for amber alerts and similar emergency notices.
During the test, there was some question as to the effectiveness of the siren in reaching all areas of Wildridge. According to Daly, some residents, particularly those in the lower sections of the subdivision, reported only hearing a sound similar to a carpet cleaner.
“We did not hear the siren,” said Devon DeCrausaz, a Wildridge resident who reportedly lives eight buildings down from the siren. “I do know that when there are Amber Alerts, my house goes off because we have four cell phones, and we know what’s going on. I would much prefer that you use technology that’s already out there and available and that we’re already used to looking at rather than spending a lot of money.”
Alternatively, Mayor Sarah Smith Hymes noted that from her home in East Wildridge, she heard the siren, but did not get any alert on her phone.
“The projections about this wildfire season are frightening — unprecedented, historic threat, dire fire threat. And wildfire has been a community concern in Wildridge for years,” Smith Hymes said. “We acknowledge all of the failings in the process. My concern is what we’re doing this summer, right now, tomorrow, through fire season.”
In addressing the initial lack of process and public engagement in the decision to install the siren as well as addressing the looming wildfire danger, the council gave direction to Heil and town staff to keep the siren (with the rented generator) as part of the evacuation strategy this summer. There will also be additional tests scheduled, both to raise awareness as to the purpose of the siren and to test its effectiveness.
Daly noted that the next test will likely take place next week and include a test during the day and in the evening. Notice of this test will be sent out via EC Alerts, town social media and press releases.
The council also requested that the project — and possible solutions including relocating the existing siren, using additional, smaller sirens as well as using mitigation techniques to make the siren(s) less obstructive and unsightly — be taken before the Planning and Zoning Commission immediately. There, it will go through a formal review and enable the public to be engaged in the process.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.