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Jackson County cities adopt evacuation zones

A resident approaches a roadblock on Cambridge Street Sept. 8, 2020 near the ignition site of the Almeda fire.

ASHLAND — Nearly one month after fire season was declared for southwest Oregon, Jackson County municipalities are in the midst of rapid revisions to emergency operations plans, and several have rolled out new evacuation zones to better manage disaster situations.

Cities in Jackson County are accountable for emergency response within their limits and have individual emergency operations plans, said Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan.

Jordan halted an update in progress on Jackson and Josephine counties’ emergency operations plans after the Almeda and East Obenchain fires, recognizing that after-action reviews from the incidents would likely illuminate new, essential changes, he said.

A recently released report on fire response compiled by Innovative Emergency Management commended rapid multi-agency response, mass evacuations and shelter setup, and creation of live evacuation maps, but criticized communication breakdowns between officials and the public.

According to Aaron Ott, Medford emergency manager, new interactive evacuation zone maps and citizen alert systems improve capacity to distribute focused emergency notifications to the public.

Medford’s new interactive map allows residents to identify their zone and print out evacuation routes and checklists in English or Spanish, Ott said. Medford is divided into 14 zones. The city’s emergency operations plan is under revision and slated for adoption in the coming months, he said.

“We will review the evacuation zones and neighborhood route maps after each fire season and incorporate any changes as needed,” Ott said.

Visit MedfordOregon.gov/BePrepared to find your route. The mapping tool covers addresses within Medford city limits and Fire District No. 2.

Jackson and Deschutes counties are in the early stages of evaluating an evacuation platform called Zonehaven, Ott said. The Oregon State Fire Marshal selected the two counties to test the format, and the city of Medford has joined in the evaluation to determine its “feasibility in future use,” he said.

According to the Zonehaven website, the tool “helps first responders plan, train and execute live evacuations” with instant alerts, real-time updates, preplanning and training opportunities.

Phoenix police Chief Derek Bowker said Talent and Phoenix are following suit with Medford’s zoning format — on a smaller scale given their smaller populations. Pending further input from City Council, Phoenix will be divided into two evacuation zones, east and west of Interstate 5.

“It makes it easier when emergency notifications go out, if something was happening on the east side, where we need to get the people in that zone alerted and ready to move for whatever reason, then we could contact Jackson County Emergency Management and have them send out an alert notifying Phoenix residents in Zone 1,” Bowker said.

“We would not have evacuated Zone 1 during the Almeda fire — we would have only evacuated Zone 2, and we would have had Zone 1 on standby and ‘Be Ready,’” he continued. “In these types of emergencies that are evolving throughout time, if you break it down into sections like this, you don’t affect as many people and worry as many people.”

Bowker said he will recommend a review of the city’s emergency operations plan as Phoenix City Council prepares to undergo a strategic planning session in the coming weeks. Newer councilors must be well-versed in what is on the books currently, and raise any questions or recommended changes, he said.

Dividing cities into zones allows disaster alerts to be distributed in a focused area, keeping residents who aren’t imminently threatened by the emergency off the road, according to Ashland city officials.

Evacuation zone maps and information are scheduled to arrive at every Ashland residence in the mail this week. An interactive map with address search, go-bag packing and evacuation checklists are available at ashland.or.us/evacuate.

In early May, the city of Central Point developed a draft evacuation map that divides the city into six zones, according to City Manager Christopher Clayton. This summer, the city plans to contract with a consultant to update the transportation system plan, potentially incorporating improved evacuation traffic management scenarios, he said.

The transportation system plan is a 20-year document intended to address growth and necessary transportation improvements throughout the city system, said Public Works and Parks Director Matt Samitore.

The current transportation system plan, adopted in 2008, “needs updating to reflect the existing and future development of the city,” Samitore said. The city’s evacuation plan will be considered in the update process once a consultant is selected, he said.

The city of Talent approaches finalization on an evacuation plan, also including an interactive GIS map, according to City Manager Jamie McLeod-Skinner. Residents can type in their address and see the route out.

Talent City Council reviewed the plan at its June 2 meeting, with a demonstration by Talent police Chief Jennifer Snook and Councilor David Pastizzo. Once finalized, the map will be available on the city website.

“The jurisdictions in our area are standardizing their efforts to develop a consistent approach to creating evacuation zones, as well as how they will be presented to the public,” Pastizzo said.

A work group was composed in November 2020 to establish evacuation zones and incorporated input from Fire District No. 5 Chief Charles Hanley and Talent Public Works Director Bret Marshall, according to Snook.

“There are several other efforts underway,” McLeod-Skinner said. “I anticipate holding a Special Emergency Preparedness Town Hall on June 23 to provide information and answer community questions.”

On March 16, Jacksonville City Council began work sessions on a comprehensive safety plan focused on generating awareness about existing disaster preparations, revising the emergency operations plan and Britt evacuation plan, distributing maps to show evacuation routes, planning a disaster drill, improving collaboration with Firewise communities and identifying safe zones outside the city.

The city of Eagle Point emergency operations plan, adopted in 2013, includes an eight-part immediate action checklist for responding to all hazard types.

“An evacuation plan would be developed and implemented based on the emergency or threat specific to that threat type, location, vulnerable population, etc.,” said Eagle Point City Administrator Aaron Prunty. “At the current time, the city does not have a separate evacuation plan.”

Incident alerts are directed to the city’s emergency manager, who coordinates with the on-site incident commander and identifies personnel to staff the emergency operations center, according to the checklist. The primary emergency operations center location is Eagle Point City Hall, 17 S. Buchanan Ave., and secondary location is Eagle Point Fire Station, 213 Loto St.

In step six, emergency managers consider evacuation or shelter-in-place orders, shelter for displaced residents, public information and media coordination, and animals. Support from county and state resources may be requested and a state of emergency declared in the city “if the incident has overwhelmed or threatens to overwhelm the city’s resources to respond.”

A 2003 hazard analysis referenced in the plan — factoring in history, vulnerability, maximum effect on the population and probability — shows water system contamination, severe winter storm and windstorm, and earthquake as the hazards with the greatest potential impact in Eagle Point.

Prunty said city staff are considering allocating a portion of emergency management funds approved in the budget to develop evacuation zones.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.