Training for disaster: First responders simulate wildfire response in Steamboat
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There was no real disaster in Steamboat Springs on Wednesday, but every fire protection district in Routt County, as well as local law enforcement and state and national emergency agencies, acted as if hundreds of lives were on the line.
Each year, county departments and emergency personnel simulate a different disaster to train personnel on the best way to respond.
Wednesday’s scenario was this: A small fire erupted at a residence in the 500 block of Steamboat Boulevard, about a mile from the Mount Werner Water District treatment plant. A resident there was burning some debris when winds picked up and gusted the flames into a 2-acre blaze, according to the scenario. Winds were moving the flames northeast toward more homes and the water plant.
The county organizes a disaster scenario each summer with help from the National Exercise Design Team through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. Two years ago, the scenario was a massive flood in downtown Steamboat. Last year, it was a spill of hazardous materials.
David “Mo” DeMorat, Routt County’s emergency operations director, said the group chose the wildfire scenario this year because real life fires have comprised the bulk of local disasters in recent summers.
“We knew everything was dry, so we figured this would be a good scenario to use,” DeMorat said.
By 10 a.m., the theoretical fire had grown to more than 100 acres, sparking an evacuation of the water treatment plant. If this really happened, losing access to the plant would virtually eliminate the municipal water supply. Steamboat has a secondary treatment plant, DeMorat explained, but it is not active this time of year.
To get clean water to evacuees, first responders would have several options, including bringing bottled water from sources outside Routt County. If that would take too long, they also could draw water from the Yampa River and clean it with a portable purifier, DeMorat explained.
First responders in Routt County have had a much quieter wildfire season this year compared to last summer, which was one of the worst and most expensive seasons on record.
Only one blaze, the Indian Run Fire, stands out in DeMorat’s memory from this summer. It broke out in August, scorching about 170 acres of low-lying sagebrush and grassland southwest of Routt County.
“It wasn’t major as far as size, but it did require every district to respond, plus we had air tankers,” DeMorat said.
One of the most important considerations when responding to major disasters, according to DeMorat, is how to balance limited resources and get first responders to the people who need the most help.
By the afternoon, the pseudo fire has grown to 800 acres, requiring the evacuation of 100 homes and several hundred residents, DeMorat said.
Deputy Chief Chuck Cerasoli with Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue was training as an incident commander for the exercise. Over the radios, other personnel referred to him as “Big Dog IC.”
“The fire is moving rapidly,” he told a small team of fellow emergency responders in a county-owned truck that acted as a command center. He directed their attention to a map of the fire, pointing to neighborhoods where he expected the flames to spread.
“Anything in this area we need to evacuate,” he said.
Undersheriff Doug Scherar with the Routt County Sheriff’s Office served as an incident commander for law enforcement, working alongside Cerasoli. He requested reinforcements from police and deputies in neighboring counties to help his personnel evacuate people and protect homes from potential looters.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the local Community Emergency Response Team simulated sheltering and caring for evacuees, which were played by volunteers. No homes were actually evacuated.
Hayden Griffith, an emergency medical technician student at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs, pretended to suffer breathing difficulties and cardiac issues as a result of the wildfire. After some mock evaluations, experts decided to put him on a rapid transport to the hospital.
With the exercise completed, DeMorat and others involved are now working to publish an after-action report with the National Exercise Design Team through FEMA. It will help other communities and agencies conduct similar trainings and better respond to their own wildfire incidents.
Officials urge the public to sign up for Routt County’s Alert Center online. People can receive notifications of hazards, closures and evacuations via text or email.
“We can send out the alerts, but if people aren’t registered, they aren’t going to get them,” Scherar said.
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