Ashland addresses emergency system weaknesses

Some Oak Knoll fire residents were without guidance for hours
Brita Hazell fled her home on Twin Pines Circle in Ashland during the Oak Knoll fire Aug. 24, then waited six hours before learning whether she could safely return.Julia Moore

ASHLAND — As soon as Brita Hazell noticed 20-foot flames lurching above homes in her neighborhood that day in August, she prepared to evacuate her home on Twin Pines Circle. She hurriedly stuffed insurance papers in her purse and was about to leave when a law enforcement officer pounded on her door and said, "Get out now." The fire on Oak Knoll Drive, he said, could spread to her home within minutes.

Hazell got out, but then realized she didn't know where to go.

She went to the bottom of the Oak Knoll Golf Course, thinking someone would drive by and tell her what to do next. She watched the black smoke and waited.

She wanted to know whether her home had burned. She wanted to know where she should go. She wanted information.

"I parked up there and just stood there and waited," she said. "I couldn't find anyone who knew what to do. The police were busy with traffic and the firefighters were busy with fire."

Hazell waited at the bottom of the golf course for six hours, she said. At about 11 p.m., she went to the golf course parking lot, where she discovered a respite center had been set up. Finally, she learned her home had been spared and she could return.

Hazell hadn't been told where to go because there was no official place for her — or any of the residents of the 70 other houses being evacuated — to go.

Richard Randleman, the city's Community Emergency Response Team program coordinator, aims to change that.

Likewise, police and fire officials are trying to address problems in the city's disaster response effort that arose during the Oak Knoll fire.

The officials know that although the Oak Knoll fire was the worst residential fire in at least 100 years in Ashland — burning 11 homes and damaging three — there are bound to be other fires and other disasters.

So, beginning next month, CERT will start creating a post-disaster response plan for events such as the Oak Knoll fire. In January, the all-volunteer organization will begin to train members to implement the new plan.

"The fire department is very capable of putting out fires, and everything that goes along with that, but it's that post-disaster recovery that we really haven't looked at before, because we really haven't had to," Randleman said.

During the Oak Knoll fire, other evacuees were also confused by the situation, according to police radio traffic during the event.

"The evacuees are wanting to know where to go," Ashland Police Officer Bon Stewart said at 5:29 p.m., about 45 minutes after the fire began igniting homes on Oak Knoll Drive.

"At this time we don't have a designated spot," Officer Steve MacLennan said.

The respite center was set up more than an hour after the evacuations were complete, Randleman said.

"There was a gap there between being able to tell people, 'You need to leave your home because of fire,' and being able to tell people where they should go," he said.

Although in the future, emergency workers may not be able to set up respite centers immediately, even with a coherent plan, Randleman hopes to shorten the time it took during the Oak Knoll fire, he said.

He also hopes to be able to more easily disseminate information to evacuees and other community members. The city has agreed to have CERT take over its emergency radio station, 1700 AM, and CERT will update it frequently with information during disasters, he said. Response team members also will set up signs that direct people to tune into the station and that point people to respite centers.

Police and fire officials also plan to make some changes to their emergency response procedures.

Ashland Fire Chief John Karns, who was trying to simultaneously monitor four radio frequencies during the fire, has installed old laptops in some fire engines. That will allow firefighters to send computerized messages to dispatch, eliminating some radio traffic.

Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness plans to have his officers record evacuees' names and contact information, if there's time during the evacuation process, so officials can contact the residents afterward and ensure that everyone made it out of the area safely.

"After the fire, we tried to chase down everybody who should have been in those houses, and if we had had their contact information, it would have been a lot easier," he said.

Even though city officials are reassessing their disaster response plans — and creating new plans — there's no way to be completely prepared for a catastrophe, Holderness said.

"You tell me what areas are going to be evacuated, and I'll come up with a really good plan for you," he said.

"A random fire someplace is kind of hard to do, but we'll continue to practice. We learned some lessons this time."

Hannah Guzik is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or

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