THE BIG ONE! Beaver Creek Fire: Our most significant accomplishment of 2013 was the communication and evacuation operations of the historic Beaver Creek Fire. The Blaine County Sheriff’s Office was an integral part of the Incident Command structure and legislatively responsible for the safe evacuation of the populace of Blaine County. In addition to aiding in the complex allocation of resources, our staff went above and beyond their normal duties to ensure the safety of our citizens. Due to our evacuation efforts, NO LIVES were lost and due to the heroic actions of the firefighters, only minimal structural damage occurred considering the massive potential for loss during the August 2013 number one priority wildfire in the nation.
- EOC – When the new Public Safety Facility was built in 2008, we created a training room that doubles as an Emergency Operations Center. Over the past few years we have worked diligently to develop it to be fully functional, but it had never been used for a major prolonged event of this magnitude before. We had a major drill planned for November 2013.
- MASSIVE FIRE THREAT ZONE – During the Castlerock Fire of 2007, we had a fire threat zone approximately 15 miles in length in which our deputies needed to make mandatory evacuation notifications door to door and facilitate road closures. During the Beaver Creek Fire, the active front varied between 40-50 miles long with evacuation areas on both sides of the highway. The fast moving fire threat created a serious challenge for us to provide enough resources to keep up with the door to door notifications to every home in the mandatory evacuation areas.
- HIGHWAY 75 – The extremely limited access to our very narrow valley created a serious concern if our main transportation artery Highway 75 became clogged, prevented emergency vehicles access, or obstructed evacuees from getting out of danger. We knew we had to plan and execute both evacuations and re-entry carefully.
- COMMUNICATION – At the time of the Beaver Creek fire the Sheriff’s Office did not have any social media in place, and there was no clear method to communicate critical information to the public in a timely manner. We did have a BCSO website, county global email list, and an aging citizen alert system. To add to the technical difficulties, in the early stages of the fire we had everyone from Incident Management, Fire Chiefs, other Law Enforcement Chiefs, County Commissioners, City Mayors, Forest Service and BLM and even INCIWEB attempting to provide evacuation information which led to mixed messages and public confusion. As a result, the public was encouraged to sign up for the citizen alert system run by Dispatch. Unfortunately, due to the high traffic on this system, we received feedback that a large number of our citizens were having problems signing up, and Dispatchers were needed around the clock just to register people and verify information so citizens could receive alerts. When we attempted a county wide notification when we closed the Highway, due to the fire, the system overloaded and the alert had to be aborted.
With all the communications challenges, we quickly realized that if the Sheriff is legislatively responsible for county evacuation then the Sheriff’s Office needed to be the primary source of evacuation information.
- OPERATIONS- With the vast number of coordinating agencies involved in the Incident Command structure, BCSO put in place a coordinated team to assist in forecasting and utilizing our resources to contribute to the overall effort. As a result of our direct liaison and planning efforts, Incident Command was able to facilitate faster decision making, determine specific trigger points for evacuation, and deploy BCSO resources where and when they were needed. Working in tandem with our Emergency Operations Center, we were able to determine exactly what resources our department had to provide at any given time and pre-stage our man-power to be ready to deploy with rapid precision. When the scope of the threat became apparent, we proactively brought in the National Guard and private flaggers to assist our road closure teams. Our Incident Command training and our collaborative team approach to problem solving were major parts of our evacuation and re-entry operational successes.
- MANDATORY EVACUATION AREA LIST– During the peak period of the fire, August 14-23, 2013, we had 57 separate areas under Mandatory Evacuation which included 2,500 homes, and we had an additional 7,500 homes on Pre-Evacuation Notification for a total of 10,000 affected homes. While it is not possible to determine the precise number of people affected, we do know that many additional residents chose to leave their homes without evacuation orders due to the real danger posed by the fast changing threat. To help the public keep track of the volatile fire threat zone, we created a detailed list of geographic areas, neighborhoods and streets by street perimeters under current Mandatory Evacuation and on Pre-Evacuation Notification. These cohesive lists were updated every few hours for the duration of the fire; sometimes it was as little as 15 minutes later and twice in the middle of the night. We repeatedly included the definitions of the terms “Mandatory Evacuation” and “Pre-Evacuation Notification” to educate the public on the urgent necessity for preparedness and rapid departure. Each time we updated our list we posted it on our BCSO website, and we emailed it out to our growing media distribution group and all county employees. Bronwyn Nickel posted our information to the County’s newly created social media accounts. Due to the success of social media during the Beaver Creek Fire, the Sheriff’s Office has now created its own social media accounts and Community Connectivity Plan. Additionally, we discovered the strength of the Blaine County employee network. Our emails of evacuation information to the county global list were spread at an amazing speed across all of Blaine County within minutes, as many employees forwarded this critical information to everyone on their contact lists.
- PUBLIC DONATION– As a result of Sheriff Ramsey’s request for bandanas for emergency personnel going viral, we received the donation of over 22,000 bandanas from all over the United States and other various countries. These bandanas became a motivating call to duty for the public’s need to help and a huge moral boost for our emergency responders. Huge quantities of bandanas were passed out at the fire camp and were a very helpful tool in keeping soot, smoke and ash out of the faces of all the emergency personnel.
CONCLUSION– As we progressed through the initial phases of this major fire event, we discovered that the Sheriff’s Office had become the primary source of evacuation information; even Inciweb started referring the public to our website. Our efforts to provide critical public safety information in a timely manner were highly successful in protecting the public safety and health. We believe that our evacuation communication and operational efforts reduced confusion, earned the public’s trust, and ultimately saved lives. The Sheriff’s Office will continue to prioritize emergency training and preparedness. When an event of this magnitude happens, it is always challenging to be completely ready for the varied potential scenarios. The Beaver Creek Fire has reaffirmed the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office guiding principles that amazing things can happen when we hire good people, train, equip and prepare them. A great staff is your most valuable asset in a public safety emergency.
Keep Them Alive on Hwy 75 Campaign: Starting October 30, 2013 a new day/night time speed limit has been imposed North of Hailey. Hwy 75 North of Hailey from McKercher Blvd. to Zinc Spur now has a 55 MPH day time speed limit and a 45 MPH night time speed limit. The reduced speed limit is intended to allow drivers additional time to identify wildlife on or near the roadway and reduce both reaction time and stopping distances to decrease the number of collisions with wildlife.
Understanding the Problem-Collisions with deer and elk occur at a regular rate along State Highway 75 through the Wood River Valley. Every year dozens of animals are struck by vehicles, reducing the local herds and causing thousands of dollars in vehicle damage, and potential injury to drivers and passengers.
A study of crashes in the 2.5 mile section north of Hailey showed more than 50% of crashes involved wildlife with most in dark conditions. This is one of the most significant areas for wildlife crossings and fatalities.
Like humans, wildlife follow familiar routes in their travels for food, water, and seasonal migrations. Unfortunately their travels include crossing State Highway 75 on a daily basis through the busiest sections of roadway between Hailey and Ketchum.
Let’s work together to reduce wildlife/vehicle collisions on Hwy 75
Drive Carefully-The results of a Blaine County Highway Wildlife Mortality study identified the “hot spots” on State Highway 75 where wildlife crossing and fatalities are most prevalent. Be aware of these hot spots and slow down when passing through them, especially at night when visibility is poor.
Obey Speed Limits-Notice any speed limit reduction requirements along the highway and make sure you slow down. Reductions in the speed limit are there for your safety and to preserve wildlife.
Be Alert-Be alert for animals and ask your passengers to do the same. Slow down when you see them as they can run onto the road without warning.
Keep the Hot Spot Map in your car-Have the map handy and review it before heading out on the highway. Make sure you note where deer and elk cross. It is important to be prepared.
Learn More-Visit the Blaine County website to learn more about wildlife crossing on Idaho 75 and throughout Blaine County and how you can be part of the solution.
BE AWARE–DRIVE WITH CARE
Blaine County Hostage Negotiation Team: In September the Blaine County Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team (S.E.R.T.) held an intensive four day 40 hour hostage negotiation training on U.S. Forest Service land to deploy newly acquired hostage negotiation equipment purchased with the help of Bureau of Homeland Security funding. The POST certified training included land navigation skills, containment and concealment proficiency and dynamic entry training, but focused on the familiarization and use of the newly purchased Direct-Link Crisis Response Phone System. The system provides valuable communication assistance during a hostage or crisis situation and allows our negotiators the ability to communicate with the suspect(s) at a safe distance while monitoring the negotiations. The equipment substantially increases the team’s capabilities and the chances for a peaceful resolution to emergency situations. The goal of the negotiation process is to save lives and to resolve crisis incidents while attempting to avoid unnecessary risk.
The Hostage Negotiation Team is a sub-group of highly trained officers who augment S.E.R.T.’s capabilities to respond to emergencies outside the normal response of typical law enforcement. The Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team or S.E.R.T. is a multi-jurisdictional task force made up of elite officers from the Sun Valley and Ketchum Police Departments and the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office. S.E.R.T. regularly trains 20 hours per month and one week per year to maintain their immediate action rapid response capabilities to handle major incidences that require a tactical team such as bank robberies, kidnapping or hostage situations, school shootings, and barricaded subjects. Their primary objective is to handle lethal weapon situations that may threaten the lives of the citizens of Blaine County. Officer, hostage and citizen safety are absolute priorities. Recently our S.E.R.T. team assisted the City of Sun Valley with the evacuation of residents, and containment, location and apprehension of an armed gunman who had fled a domestic dispute in the Elkhorn Resort area. No one was injured in this successful operation except for the original victim of domestic battery.