“Meet us halfway,” Firefighters tell homeowners at WUI drill near Nevada City

NEVADA CITY, Calif. June 9, 2019 – Three Firewise communities, Greater Champion Mine, Cement Hill and Lake Vera/Round Mountain, were part of a Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) drill this Sunday.

The EOC crew is ready to start operations. Photo: YubaNet

The Base Camp and Incident Command Post (ICP) were set up in the parking lot of the Nevada County Rood Center. Early in the morning, firefighters, law enforcement, medics, Search and Rescue, Animal evacuation volunteers and Fire Safe Council personnel arrived at the staging area. At the same time, Nevada County’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) opened for a comprehensive drill.

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Morning Briefing. Photo: YubaNet

CAL FIRE’s Matt Wallen was the Incident Commander (IC) for the WUI drill and started by thanking all the agencies present. Due to the fires burning in Northern California and the expected high activity throughout the day, the contingent was smaller than hoped for. Nevertheless, the assignments for the crews were the same.

A round of visits to homeowners who volunteered to be part of the drill, assess the defensible space, access and home hardening efforts, then onto handline construction and hoselays – interspersed with ‘Incidents within Incident’ (IWI) surprises.

From left to right: Chief Matt Wallen, OES Director Steve Monaghan, District 5 Supervisor and Chair of the BOS Richard Anderson, County CEO Alison Lehman, District 4 Supervisor Sue Hoek and Nevada County Consolidated Fire Chief Jim Turner. Photo: YubaNet

Around 9:30 am, Nevada County OES sent out 1,883 phone calls, 381 emails and 603 text via CodeRED – the first of two mock notices. “This is a drill. This is an informational alert from the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office. First responders are conducting a wildfire drill in the Champion Mine, Lake Vera Purdon, Greater Cement Hill area today, June 9, 2019. There will be an increased presence of first responders in the area throughout the duration of the drill. We encourage residents to use this opportunity to review or develop their family emergency plans. This is only a drill.”

Law enforcement officers from Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, CHP, Grass Valley and Nevada City made the rounds in the participating neighborhoods, conducting mock evacuations and provided helpful tips to residents. YubaNet HQ – north of Nevada City – had a visit by two officers from Grass Valley Police, not their usual beat. The main goal of the exercise was to familiarize local first responders with areas they normally don’t respond to.

Around 11:30 am, the second CodeRED message was sent to the residents: “This is only a drill. As part of today’s wildfire drill, the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office is issuing an evacuation order for the area of Cement Hill and Lake Vera / Round Mountain fire wise communities. Participating members should evacuate according to their family evacuation plan. Again, this is only a drill.”

Public participation in the mock evacuation was fairly low, but residents leaving their neighborhoods saw signs at intersections asking them if they knew a secondary egress road, in case their habitual road was closed due to an accident or the fire making the road impassable.

Throughout the afternoon, the WUI drill continued, as did the IWI scenarios concocted by Chief Wallen: Homeowners and  firefighters trapped and have to be rescued, a law enforcement officer succumbing to smoke inhalation, air ambulances, EMS personnel and ambulances appearing on scene, car accidents blocking roads – all to test the firefighters’ readiness and strengthen their training.

By 4:00 pm, the exercise concluded. First responders and homeowners gathered  at the Rood Center again for a debriefing and a Q&A session.

Reality check

Chief Wallen explained again why not every volunteer homeowner saw the expected fire engine drive up to their house. “This is real life. We don’t have enough engines to get to everyone and I’m sorry for that. If we ever have a major incident, we won’t be able to park an engine at every house. That’s just a reality.” Wallen recommended to have dead airspace – open areas between the home, around the driveway – as the best chance to be able to evacuate safely and have a home be defensible.

Captain David Ray pleading with the homeowners to do their part. Photo: YubaNet

Chief David Ray, who has been fighting fires in the area for close to 40 years, made an impassioned plea to the assembled homeowners: “Meet us halfway! If we can’t even find your address,  see your driveway, or all the great defensible space you may have around your home, we will pass your house. My job as a Fire Captain is to get my crew home and get you out safe. There not one house, or one building that’s worth the life of one of my firefighters. I’m sorry. That’s where the partnerships come in. I say it every year, and I’ll say it until I die – you have to meet us halfway. Don’t expect everyone to know your road. Our local guys they know there’s a turnaround at the end of that road, but how about an engine company from Sonoma? Flip the coin folks, tough decision but life comes first. Anything you can do to give us the road width we need – trees right along the roadway, get them out of there. At least 15 ft high or that fire is gonna come ripping through there and kill us – or as important – it’s gonna kill you.”

Debriefing after the WUI drill. Photo: YubaNet

Homeowners attending the debrief were given a mission by Chief Wallen, “You are now the experts, you know what to expect and what to do. Go and talk to your neighbors, work together and get ready. If we have a fire, you need to open the window, or step outside to assess your situation. Leave early. When we come knocking on your door, you could be out of time.”

For homeowners who want to find out what they can do to make their home more firesafe and give themselves a better chance to survive a wildfire, free defensible space advisory visits are available. Contact the Fire Safe Council or your local fire department.

If you want to act immediately, come to Monday’s Wildfire Preparedness Speaker Series: Ready, Set, Go for Families starting at 6:00 pm at the Rood Center. Bring your questions, bring your kids!