New details are emerging from the devastating September wildfires that swept across one million acres.
The Oregon Office of Emergency Management’s latest report issued this week shows grim details. Nine people were killed, five left missing, 2,669 people were sheltered and the fires destroyed 2,284 homes and 1,575 other structures.
Entire towns were destroyed, or left with millions of dollars in damages.
The reality of quick action needed when such disaster spreads has been a continuing discussion by first responders, elected officials and community members across Columbia County.
City of Clatskanie reaction
Clatskanie City Manager Greg Hinkelman said his city depends on county and state emergency management agencies to help notify residents and business operators about pending and immediate evacuations.
"They would be the guys to call the shots," he said.
Hinkelman said the city is a subscriber and participates in the Columbia Alert Network.
“Which is kind of like a reverse 911,” Hinkelman said. “We have the ability to send out an automated phone message to all residents notifying of any potential emergency. We would also coordinate messages with the fire department and the public utility district (PUD). We have been long-time participants in the Local Emergency Planning Commission (LEPC) to help with disaster response.”
Hinkelman said the city has established planned escape routes for emergency evacuations.
“Escape is either Highway 30 or Highway 47,” he said. “Beaver Falls Road is an alternate along with Swedetown Road. Any evacuation route would be directed by our public works or the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office.”
Hinkleman said the City of Clatskanie has been working with county disaster preparedness officials for years to have disaster kits at home ready for both a shelter-in-place scenario and an evacuation.
Hinkelman said it is important that residents, business operators and employees have a shelter in place plan and have a “go bag” in the event of evacuations.
“I would also develop a checklist of items to grab if you have the time,” he said. “Things like important documents, medication, the cell phone charger and those must-save valuables, such as photographs probably being near the top of the list.”
The city also has a siren located at Clatskanie City Park as an alert tool that has been used by the Clatskanie Rural Fire Protection District (CRFPD).
But Hinkelman said the city hasn’t used the siren for quite some time because when there is a fire other other emergency requiring CRFPD crews, most of the firefighters are alerted though their cell phones now as a more effective communications.
“We do participate in emergency and disaster exercises in coordination with the county, he said. “We have had evacuations in the past due to flooding, but since I have been here from 2008, we had no evacuations due to wildfires.”
Fire agency reaction
CRFPD Chief Steve Sharek said his agency maintains the siren at Clatskanie City Park but due to its limited sound range it isn’t used as a primary alert system.
“The last time we used it was when we had flooding,” Sharek said. “We did use it to wake people up and alert them of what was going on.”
Sharek said while his agency crews have conducted wildfire evacuation training, the actual educations would be done through law enforcement.
“We count on law enforcement to make those notifications and we would participate in a hurry if we needed to,” he said.
Communicating with Columbia River Fire & Rescue (CRFR) is also key in such emergencies, Sharek said.
“We would probably be the fist ones to identify the problem or the threat,” he said. “Law enforcement and fire would then determine what should happen and we would get that message to CRFR’s communication officer.”
Sharek said being prepared is a community wide responsibility.
“It’s all about public and community education,” he said.
As the September wildfires erupted across the state, Sharek said CRFPD coordinated development of an emergency plan with Columbia County.
“We were concerned in the county that the resources were getting drawn way down,” he said. “We had sent a crew to the California wildfires and were on standby for the Oregon fires, so we were watching things and making plans.”
Those plans included notifying private land owners.
"We wanted to make sure we had their phone numbers, what they were seeing, what type of heavy equipment they had, in case there was the need,” Sharek said.
Key elements for effective and quick emergency evacuations will be through social media, Facebook, radio and television, according to Sharek, who said first responders, law enforcement and fire agency crews would also travel into neighborhoods knocking on doors and using vehicle loud speakers to alert people of the emergency.
Sharek said before wildfires occur, residents, especially those in the dense forests of Columbia County need to make sure they have a defensible space around their homes and a clear driveway and have an evacuation plan of their own to allow them to escape the danger.
“We’d rather be working immediately on the fire rather that having to move people out of the way,” Sharek said. “That is where Ready, Set, Go is helping people get to safety. There will be situations where you have to help people and we will help them if we can.”
City of Rainier reaction
Rainier Police Chief Gregg Griffith said fire service personnel are responsible for assessing threat hazards posed by fire, radiological materials, and other hazardous materials.
“They also recommend to the on-scene Incident Commander appropriate protective actions for emergency responders, including requirements for personal protective actions and personal protective equipment for emergency responders,” Griffith said. “In addition, fire service personnel are responsible for recommending appropriate protective actions to ensure public safety in the immediate vicinity of a threat.”
Griffith said the City of Rainier’s alert and warning system utilizes the local EAS, reverse 9-1-1, police and fire vehicle public address systems, and door-to-door contact.
“Police and fire vehicle public address systems and door-to-door contact are either last resort or used for highly localized hazards,” he said. “Other local media (TV, radio, newspaper, etc.) may be utilized as appropriate. These methods may be used separately or in combination to alert and warn the public of an emergency.”
Griffith said the escape routes will be determined by the incident command depending on the reason for the evacuation. The routes will then be disseminated with the immediate warning evacuation notification.
According to Griffith, every person who lives or works in the city shares responsibility for minimizing the impact of disasters on our community.
“These individual responsibilities include hazard awareness, knowledge of appropriate protective actions, proactive steps to mitigate the impact of anticipated hazards, and preparations for personal and family safety and self-sufficiency,” he said.
Griffith said to the greatest extent possible, the city will assist citizens in carrying out the responsibility by providing preparedness and mitigation information and delivering critical public services during a disaster.
“However, a major emergency is likely to damage the city’s critical infrastructure and reduce the workforce available to continue essential government services,” Griffith said. “Knowledgeable citizens prepared to take care of themselves and their families in the early phases of an emergency can make a significant contribution towards survival and community resiliency.”
For more information about emergency preparedness, contact your local fire department or fire agency, Columbia County Emergency Management, or your local city officials.