If disaster strikes Vail, getting out requires preparation on your part
VAIL — Near the end of the Vail Homeowners Association’s annual meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 27, member Judy Berkowitz asked the question of the night: What happens if disaster strikes and we have to evacuate?
Given California’s recent catastrophic wildfires, as well as hurricanes, flooding and other disasters in the year just past, emergency preparedness is on the minds of a lot of people, including Vail Valley residents and visitors.
In Vail, getting out is both relatively simple and more complex than it appears.
If you need to get out of Vail in a hurry, then your escape route is Interstate 70. Of course, that’s the only route through town.
Given Vail’s location in a relatively tight valley, and the fact the town is surrounded by thousands of acres of national forest, a wildfire disaster — most probably in the summer or fall — seems most likely.
More than wildfire
But fire and emergency management officials in Vail and the rest of the valley put a lot of thought and planning into other potential problems, including road-closing or property-destroying avalanches, floods and the possibility of a hazardous material spill on the interstate.
Each of those and other potential incidents has a number of possible responses.
The first thing, though, is to know an emergency exists. The Vail emergency dispatch center — which dispatches every agency in the valley except the Colorado State Patrol — has a number of ways to contact people.
According to Jennifer Kirkland, the 911 Operations Administrator in Vail, there are three main ways to contact people in an emergency.
The most commonly used are Eagle County Alerts, a free, subscription-based system. Residents and visitors can sign up for email and text notifications on different topics in different areas.
A broad enough subscription results in notifications about everything from traffic accidents on Vail Pass to mountain lion sightings in Gypsum.
There’s also a reverse notification system at the 911 center. Using a database from CenturyLink, the local land line provider, officials can send out geo-targeted alerts to specific neighborhoods.
Then there’s the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS. Kirkland said that’s a national system. Once an alert is confirmed through IPAWS, notifications can go both land lines and cell phones.
The easiest thing, though, is Eagle County Alerts.
It’s not easy
But possible evacuation notices aren’t simple.
“People are looking for a magic bullet regarding evacuations, but there isn’t one specific (answer),” Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak said.
In some cases, the best way to ride out a disaster is to stay where you are. That’s particularly true of hazardous materials accidents.
“You don’t want to evacuate through a cloud of hazardous material,” Novak said.
In those incidents, Novak said the best thing to do is close your home’s doors and windows and turn off the ventilation systems so as little outside air as possible comes inside.
Other incidents require getting out, and heading toward safer areas, either in town or out of town.
If an evacuation notice is issued, then it’s serious, Novak said. That means people need to be prepared to get out in five minutes or so.
Emergency officials say everyone should have a “get-out” kit, a bag of essential medications, clothing, water and food for three days.
Important documents, photos and heirlooms need to be stored in easy to find and get to places.
Most important, they need to be readily identifiable.
Novak told the story of friends who weren’t at home when an evacuation was ordered in a California wildfire. Neighbors were asked to stop in and grab several red boxes that had family photos and documents. The neighbors grabbed red boxes — that were filled with Christmas decorations.
Unlike residents of areas that have frequent wildfires or weather emergencies, the Vail Valley has largely been spared any incidents that require evacuations.
“We have been fortunate, but that breeds complacency, too,” Novak said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org or @scottnmiller.
The graduates of Vail Mountain School’s class of 2019 will be off to far-flung destinations next fall, set to enter college in one of 16 different states or explore the world on a gap year. One grad is even attending college in Canada.