The wildfire was making a run for it, nearing Three Springs and threatening almost 1,250 structures in the Palo Verde, La Paloma and the greater Three Springs neighborhoods.
Mercy Hospital was being evacuated and incoming patients were being diverted to other regional hospitals. Firefighters were battling to hold the blaze at High Llama Lane.
“There are structures that are saved but not safe,” said Darren Waymen, risk manager for La Plata County and the operations chief for the county’s incident management team, during a Thursday morning briefing.
“Ten residences in total have been lost as of this briefing,” he said.
Only they weren’t.
La Plata County and its local, state and federal partners have been conducting an elaborate wildfire simulation since Wednesday to prepare for the upcoming fire season. The exercise marks the second annual simulation run by the county, but a significant increase in its complexity from last year.
With plans to continue expanding the exercise in subsequent years, the county and its partners are trying to do as much as they can to ready themselves for the inevitable.
“In my career in firefighting, I saw communities that were just reacting to something happening. I was either responding to those fires to put them out as fast as I could or controlling the incident management teams that came in to help the community work on the fire situation,” said Shawna Legarza, director of emergency management for La Plata County. “At this county level, it was almost like, ‘What do we do now? How do we help?’
“We want the county to be as prepared as possible. We’re doing some due diligence to try to get that going,” she said.
La Plata County’s simulation began Wednesday with preparations before transitioning to full-blown simulated fires and emergencies on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
The exercise started with a red flag scenario with warm weather and high winds like those that helped start the recent wildfires in New Mexico. As a storm moved through Southwest Colorado, about 20 lighting strikes initiated possible fires before two sparks took off near the Grandview area of Three Springs and High Flume Canyon in southwest La Plata County along La Posta Road (County Road 213) and near Sunnyside Elementary.
Throughout each day, teams worked out of the Durango-La Plata Emergency Communications Center in Bodo Park performing their various functions. The county’s incident management team held briefings Thursday and Friday at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. with another smaller fire briefing at noon.
GIS staff members created emergency maps while the public information team produced videos and wrote news releases that they distributed to local media. Logistics coordinated the movement of supplies and finance prepared and collected the actual financial forms that the fire districts and the various emergency management teams would have to fill out to track expenses for a wildfire.
The county and its state and federal partners such as the Colorado Department of Transportation and Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch practiced the emergency declarations that would be necessary to move management and financing for a wildfire up the ladder from the local fire districts to the county and the Sheriff’s Office, the state and the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, and eventually the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
At 3 p.m. Friday, teams conducted an actual evacuation of the Falls Creek subdivision, complete with check-ins and the printing of IDs for evacuees. The county planned to do another real-world evacuation of the Vista De Oro subdivision on Fort Lewis Mesa on Saturday.
In all, more than 60 people participated from more than a dozen agencies and organizations.
Such a lifelike simulation is critical for making sure the county and its partners are prepared, according to those involved.
Communication and working relationships often determine the effectiveness of a wildfire response, both of which were aims of the exercise, Legarza, said.
“(One goal was) for people to build relationships with those that haven’t been in the situation before,” she said. “The last time we had something happen in our community that big was the 416 Fire. There’s a lot of new people in different roles for the city and county that would help respond to something like the 416.”
Another critical component was the opportunity to practice actual evacuations. When Legarza joined the La Plata County Office of Emergency Management in July 2020, she was informed that the county did not have a formalized evacuation plan.
Concrete evacuation plans can make a difference, said Scott Nielsen, wildland program coordinator for Durango Fire Protection District.
“If we can manage the evacuation and keep people moving in the right direction, it really allows us to get to the fire and operate quicker,” he said. “... It just saves minutes, if not hours, and those minutes and hours early on in a fire really can change the outcome from being a couple day event to a multiweek event.”
Joining the exercise was Leo Zlimen, CEO of Ladris Technologies Inc., a California-based company that has developed artificial intelligence software that can help first responders and emergency managers expedite and modify evacuation plans.
The software uses an array of real-time data to identify the most efficient evacuation routes and answer questions like how many people need to be evacuated and how long an evacuation will take. Emergency managers can change everything from speed limits to road blockages, and the system will create simulations that help managers make the best decision.
“The platform is a system that basically allows them to simulate any sort of what-if scenario that they have about their populations and road systems,” Zlimen said.
Though La Plata County has not yet contracted the software, he gave demonstrations during the simulation and said the county could begin using the software this fire season.
Testing technology and information systems was a focus of the simulation. La Plata County also has a software called Salamander that it began using during the 416 Fire that Legarza and La Plata County Emergency Management Coordinator Rob Farino have been working to incorporate more into the county’s emergency operations.
Salamander allows the county to scan the IDs of emergency teams to keep track of staff members. The system also allows the county to create IDs for evacuees, which help emergency managers to keep track of evacuations and determine those who are allowed back in their homes.
But arguably the greatest capability of Salamander is its ability to track the cost of wildfires in real time for reimbursement.
“When we wrap this thing up, we can say, ‘We had 33 different people working on this incident over 17 days. These are our costs for those folks,’” Farino said. “That’s huge.”
While parts of the simulation may seem trivial like declaring a fake emergency, together they make a big difference, according to Logan Davis, regional battalion chief for the San Juan River region of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
La Plata County’s simulation modeled important steps first responders and agencies would take in the event of a real wildfire.
“A lot of times you can try to be prepared, but when it actually occurs, you have to be reactive to an extent and then there’s a curve to get back to the proactive measures,” Davis said. “(Wildfire) suppression is initially a reactive situation. Things like this help us immensely in being prepared to initiate that reaction.”
Large and destructive wildfires already burning this year in New Mexico and Arizona have served as a reminder of the importance of this week’s simulation for many of those who participated. Legarza said she has been watching the fires in New Mexico with an eye toward preparing La Plata County.
State officials warned during a presentation on April 22 that 2022 could be the worst fire year in state history, a concern that Davis shared.
“The snowpack levels and the way the snowpack is receding this year I think does create more concern for the coming wildfire season,” he said.
However, Nielsen maintained that the fire danger Southwest Colorado will face this year was nothing new given the dry conditions and fires the region has experienced in years past.
“We all have a concern almost every year,” he said. “For the past 10 years, people used the term ‘unprecedented wildfire season.’ But after 10 years, I don’t know if it’s really unprecedented anymore. I think we’re just seeing a change in the fire landscape and we’re always trying to be more ready and more prepared.”
After the inaugural exercise last year, La Plata County will continue to conduct wildfire simulations annually to limit the potential for a catastrophic wildfire. But Legarza’s vision for future simulations is more expansive with more participants and more thorough exercises to better replicate a wildfire.
“We want to have it every year around this time (with) more subdivisions, more people signing up for Code Red (the county’s emergency notification service) and just more participation overall,” she said. “We have new people that are going to come in – new people living here, new employees – so just practicing so that we can do the best when something happens.”