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CERT team members alerted residents in Talent

A volunteer emergency group member in Talent alerted her neighbors to the Almeda fire Sept. 8 more than an hour before sheriff’s department officers came down her street telling residents to leave.

Kittie Harrison, who leads the Talent Community Emergency Response Team, took the action along with her husband, John. Because she’d done a Map Your Neighborhood exercise for Willow Springs Drive, she knew which people to warn first because they might need extra time.

“I got a bad feeling about this with the winds. Let’s go around the neighborhood and knock on doors and tell them to be ready to move in a moment’s notice,” Harrison told her husband after he came inside to report a large smoke plume.

CERT teams are assembled to help neighborhoods survive after disasters such as earthquakes or floods. They are not intended to provide notifications on advancing fires, but at least one other Talent CERT member did that.

Half of the 34 homes on Willow Springs Drive were destroyed in the conflagration and the Harrisons’ home suffered $100,000 in damage. The drive forms a U-shaped loop that connects to Suncrest Road on both ends in northeast Talent.

“We got all of the older people out right away first,” said John Harrison, who is on Talent City Council. “(Kittie) knows all the neighbors. We had meetings to know the neighbors, to ... orient you in the neighborhood.”

The Harrisons split up, each covering a side of the street. First alerts went to an 86-year-old next-door neighbor and a couple in their 70s. A lot of children answered the doors because they were home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. People listened and responded, said Kittie.

“As I’m going door to door, people got their pets in their carriers, they were already loading into their cars. I saw a family with kids carrying out paperwork,” said Kittie, who is on the Jackson County Fire District No. 5 board of directors. “What was nice, when the sheriff’s department did come in to tell us to leave, it was pretty empty.”

After alerting neighbors, the Harrisons came home to pack their own cars. They had talked about such a situation and had assigned roles, with John gathering paperwork and computers, and Kittie getting medication and clothes.

“We knew what to grab. We weren’t running into each other,” said Kittie.

Off of North Front Street, CERT volunteer Nancy Buono learned about the danger later than the Harrisons. She said people were already packing up and leaving when she talked with a young neighbor who then went around knocking on doors to make sure everyone knew about the danger. None of the homes in Buono’s neighborhood were lost.

“We’re not designed for fire. We did the best we could. We never mobilized. That did not happen,” said Buono. The job for CERT volunteers is to take care of their own personal safety first, then take care of safety for others when the teams are mobilized, she said.

Buono had also led a Map Your Neighborhood exercise three years ago. It was moved to the Fire District 5 headquarters after nearly 25 people indicated they’d attend, too many for Buono to host at her home. Harrison had done the exercise twice in her area, the last time in 2019.

“It was great because everyone listed their skills, the type of equipment they had, medical skills,” said Buono. That would help response locally after a disaster when outside aid might not be readily available.

“It was a meeting of the minds. Something turned over in the neighborhood,” said Buono. It needs to be done again as some have left the area while new residents have moved in, she said.

In the meetings participants fill out booklets with information. The meetings also allow team leaders to assemble lists of residents with notes on who might have special needs in an emergency.

“The whole idea is that while you are sitting there talking about things, you are getting to know each other,” said Kittie.

Talent CERT operates as part of the Ashland CERT program. The Talent team has about 20 members, and about a dozen neighborhoods have been mapped, said Harrison.

In the fire’s aftermath, Talent City Manager Sandra Spelliscy, Fire District 5 Chief Charles Hanley and interim police Chief Jennifer Snook have talked about developing better communication for emergencies and how the community can be prepared, Kittie said.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

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