Log In

Reset Password
News Education Local News Nation & World New Mexico

Wildfire evacuation drill grows in third year

Residents in five subdivisions practiced leaving homes in an emergency situation
Joe Wayne, with Durango Fire Protection District, acts as a mock incident commander on Wednesday during a wildfire evacuation drill at Station 1. He provided an update on the fictional Silver Mountain Fire set ablaze Monday by an untended campfire. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The alphabet soup hung thick in the air at the Wednesday morning briefing. Acronyms were abundant.

The assemblage of firefighters from the San Juan National Forest, Upper Pine River Fire Protection District, Durango Fire Protection District as well as a handful of employees from the La Plata County Road and Bridge crew listened intently to the latest news on a fictional fire making its way down La Plata Canyon toward the Durango Ridge Ranch subdivision.

“If you get a fire in this Four Corners region, odds are the first 50 people that will respond are standing right here,” Scott Neilsen, wildland coordinator at DFPD, told the group.

Thirty minutes later, up the hill from Fire Station 1 at the La Plata County Emergency Operations Center in Bodo Industrial Park, Greg French, deputy chief of operations at Upper Pine fire, steps outside the basement room.

At 11:18 a.m., his voice came over emergency radios and a loudspeaker.

Firefighters meet in front of a home in the Durango Ridge Ranch subdivision in western La Plata County to discuss structure protection on Wednesday during the county’s wildfire evacuation drill. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“EOC Command, this is Simpatico Command. I need to report a wildland fire outside of Forest Lakes,” French said from the parking lot. “Initial report: size of fire is 10 acres, human-caused, values are threatened, high growth rapid fire spread. Fuel type: tall grass, oak.”

At the direction of the county’s Director of Emergency Management Shawna Legarza, a dizzying array of agencies spent the last week responding to four fictional wildfires as a part of the county’s third annual wildfire evacuation exercise.

The Department of Human Services practiced checking evacuated residents into the Salamander system; evacuated residents went through the motions of leaving their home at the direction of a Code Red notification; in the EOC, emergency management staff members worked out kinks in the lines of communication.

The exercise has become increasingly comprehensive over the last three years, Legarza said. In 2021, it lasted just a day. This year, it spanned four days and involved four fire protection districts, five subdivisions and close to two dozen other entities from the city, county, state and federal governments.

The exercise benefits agency staff members as much as it does the participating residents. Legarza said that each year, residents notice the drill and start asking questions.

About 2,400 people received evacuation orders as part of the drill this week.

According to the Colorado State Forest Service, only 6% of the county’s residents live in an area with no wildland-urban interface fire risk. Conversely, 32% of residents live in an area that is likely to have the highest negative impact from a wildfire.

The county also received a grant to conduct fire mitigation work last fall, and will continue that work this spring.

Joe Wayne, with Durango Fire Protection District, acts as a mock incident commander on Wednesday during a wildfire evacuation drill at Station 1. The practice is an annual event held by the La Plata County Office Emergency Management. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Some representatives from Durango Ridge Ranch observed the drill from the EOC last year and, upon realizing that residents of the subdivision had no evacuation plan in place, asked to participate this year. And so Legarza started a fictional fire Monday in La Plata Canyon that threatened the subdivision and burned 15 homes.

Most of the neighborhood is in the moderate-high risk wildland-urban interface category.

Wednesday afternoon, about 20 minutes after the evacuation notice went out, residents of Durango Ridge Ranch started to arrive at the entrance of their subdivision.

“I feel like we’re going to be well taken care of,” said Tracy Phillips, as she and her husband arrived at the check-in site.

Of course without the actual threat of a consuming blaze, the mood was light as neighbors socialized. DHS staff members greeted the evacuees and entered their information into the Salamander system.

The technology allows emergency response coordinators to track the hours staff members spend working as well as the location of evacuees. Residents receive a personalized rapid tag, which enables officials to scan people in and out of their own neighborhoods.

La Plata County used the system for the first time during the 416 Fire, and has activated it several times since then. The technology can help prevent looting and break-ins by limiting access to evacuated neighborhoods.

The mock-evacuations also forced residents to consider what they would grab on their way out of the house.

Phillips and her husband, Harper Phillips, said they treated the exercise as if it were a short-notice evacuation. They mentally ran through their pets and wallets, then hopped in the car.

Madeline Marquardt said the drill prompted her to take preemptive action.

“We’ve been thinking,” she said. “This prompted us to take pictures of everything in our house this last week so we really know what our contents are, and I’ve got a list of our documents.”

Legarza said this is exactly the sort of thing the drill is good for.

“It’s like practicing to take an SAT before you actually take the SAT – you’re nervous about it,” she said.

For responders, the drill is a unique training opportunity that could not occur without the expansive interagency collaboration.

“We’re practicing an extraordinary event,” said Deputy Chief French. “It’s one of those low-frequency, high-risk events that we need to practice involving all these agencies and involving the property owners that could be affected.”

Legarza spent nearly two decades as a Hotshot firefighter and in 2016 became the Forest Service’s National Director of Fire and Aviation. She retired from the role in 2019 and started with the county in 2020.

The layout of the county makes evacuations complex. There are over 17,000 dead-ends, including cul-de-sacs, in the county, Legarza said, in addition to neighborhoods and areas with a single route in and out.

When the 2021 evacuation drill began, the EOC was nonoperational. Today, a printer quickly produces updated visuals of fictional fires, bright orange laminated signs dictate who sits where, and Legarza deftly navigates the controls of a smart board before the entire room.

She keeps the drill contained to the standard workday, meaning no overtime is required and agencies do not incur any extra costs.

“It was just something that I thought would be fun to do in my new job – and I love it,” she said.


Reader Comments