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Southwest Colorado officials learn what to do in a drought disaster

Workshop teaches agencies how to work together

As Southwest Colorado braces for a summer of drought, government officials from several counties are learning how to prepare for worst-case scenarios.

On Wednesday, members of the Extension Disaster Education Network held an agricultural disaster training workshop in Dove Creek. Emergency managers, extension agents, law enforcement officers and other officials from across the Southwest attended the training, including Montezuma County Commissioner James Lambert and CSU Extension Agent Tom Hooten.

EDEN educators taught attendees about how to respond to rural disasters such as wildfire and drought and how to plan for them before they happen.

EDEN, a nationwide program supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and numerous university extension agencies, holds disaster training workshops every year across the country. The visit to Dove Creek was part of a federally funded education project in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.

Dolores County Extension Agent Gus Westerman said it was a “real honor” to hold the workshop in Dove Creek, and added that he was excited to see officials from Montezuma, Dolores, La Plata and San Miguel counties attending.

“This has given us the opportunity to put faces to names,” Westerman said. “If something does happen, we know who to call and for what.”

EDEN educators spent much of the six-hour workshop giving practical advice, such as how to safely evacuate livestock from a crashed truck, how to track cattle to make sure they don’t spread disease, and how to create healthy, drought-resistant rangeland. But EDEN’s national chairman, Scott Cotton, said the event’s main purpose was to encourage members of different agencies to communicate with one another. He told stories about disasters that were made worse by of a lack of communication between law enforcement and agriculture experts, and said it’s vital for local agencies to work together when planning for emergencies.

“Building that communication, that fabric, is the first step to resilience,” he said.

Montezuma County didn’t have as many officials at the workshop as some neighboring counties, but those who did attend said it was helpful.

“I thought I knew something about this stuff, but I’ve learned a lot,” Lambert said.

Cotton ended the workshop with a tabletop exercise in which all the attendees teamed up to plan a response to a hypothetical wildfire scenario. The exercise required officials to think through how they would determine the fire’s threat, communicate with the public, and evacuate people and livestock safely.

Other educators, including Colorado State University specialists Retta Bruegger, Jenny Beiermann and Ragan Adams, taught sessions on how to prepare for a drought, how to care for animals during an emergency, and other topics. Adams said she sees local workshops as one of the most important things the federal government can do to prepare for disasters.

“The better people are prepared, the better they can be helped,” she said.

The workshop focused mainly on drought and wildfire disasters, since Cotton said Southwest Colorado will be at high risk for both this year.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Montezuma County is experiencing extreme drought conditions, along with most of southern Colorado. Data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service shows the snowpack in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River basins was at 38 percent of normal as of Wednesday. The dry conditions have already caused several small fires this year in the county, and a fire ban went into effect on April 16.

EDEN will hold two more Colorado disaster workshops this summer, in Salida and Las Animas.

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