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Ashland evacuation: What's the plan?

In the aftermath of the Almeda fire, we have seen a lot of misinformation on social media talking about the city’s “lack” of an evacuation plan. We understand that many of you are afraid following the catastrophic fires of Sept. 8, and we don’t want you to be. Please take a few minutes to read this article so that you better understand what the city’s role is during an evacuation.

The city of Ashland has been preparing our residents to perform evacuations as far back as 2005. While frightening and chaotic, evacuations are actually quite simple. There are basically four steps involved in an evacuation.

1: A potential hazard is recognized by public safety officials

2: Incident commanders identify those who might be affected by the hazard

3: Those at risk are contacted and are either asked to leave (Go), or be on alert (Be Ready)

4: Those needing help are given assistance

That is the “plan.” In order to make sure that evacuations will be successful, we intentionally try to keep them as simple as possible. The more complex we make a plan, the greater the likelihood that something will go wrong. It is important to note, a key concept of any evacuation is to move as few people as needed the shortest distance to safety.

For the Almeda fire, we asked residents from Michelle to lower Cambridge to evacuate. We did not need or want additional homes to be evacuated. Those leaving the city when it was not necessary not only put themselves in harm’s way (people were trying to travel the same path of the fire), they hampered efforts of police and fire responders. If we need you to evacuate (Level 3 – Go), we will notify you. Otherwise, sit tight, Be Ready, and make sure you are monitoring the communication channels.

The Ashland Police Department is charged with carrying out evacuations during disasters, with assistance from the Public Works Department. Face-to-face communication between APD officers and those needing to evacuate is the preferred method of alerting persons in danger.

If face-to-face communications is not practical, the vity has several other means at its disposal:

  • The Nixle emergency alert system (ashland.or.us/nixle) is our mass alerting system for those in and around Ashland. Alerts can be sent from the field via cell phones.
  • Messages can be updated on the fire departments Wildfire Hotline and 1700AM radio station if we have personnel at the station.
  • Similar to above, if personnel are available, departments will post information to our Facebook pages (City, Police and Fire).
  • Finally, Jackson County Emergency Management can send messages through Citizen Alert (Nixle’s parent company), Wireless Emergency Alerts (similar to AMBER alerts) and the Emergency Alert System (television and radio).

As part of our continuing effort to be better prepared, the fire department was successful in securing a grant to conduct an Evacuation Time Estimate for Ashland. We sometimes refer to this as an evacuation study. In reality, it is simply a traffic study on steroids.

In its basic form, the city will be broken up into 10 evacuations zones and evacuation times will be calculated for each zone based upon time of day, time of year and route taken. Other variables will look at multiple egress routes and utilizing all lanes of travel moving in one direction. Once we get the community educated on which zone they live in, we will be able to better control the flow of people leaving the City when an evacuation needs to occur.

In the case of the Almeda fire, the responding incident commander received enough information from the dispatch center to identify that we had a significant hazard and which addresses were at risk. After conferring with incident command, APD began face to face evacuations within three minutes of the fire being reported. Because the fire moved quickly beyond the homes on the edge of town, it was not necessary to evacuate large amounts of people. Our “plan” worked and everyone in the affected areas of Ashland were safely evacuated.

We will continue to do our part; please take the time to do yours. Visit www.ashland.or.us/SIB/files/FIRE/CERT/AIR_Guidebook_with_Links.pdf to see our Emergency Preparedness Guidebook. Also, visit ashland.or.us/evacuate. They are both full of great information and knowledge that will assist you in preparing for our next disaster.

David Shepherd is the Fire Chief at Ashland Fire & Rescue and can be reached at david.shepherd@ashland.or.us