If another wildfire prompts evacuations, do you know routes to escape danger?
Both the Marshall Fire in December 2021 and the NCAR fire the following spring forced thousands to flee their homes. The NCAR blaze especially revealed a challenge for the city and a conundrum for residents: There’s no formal protocol for wildfire evacuations in Boulder.
“The evacuation from the NCAR Fire was a disaster in the making,” a Boulderite recently wrote to Boulder Reporting Lab. “Taking an hour to get from Greenbriar [Boulevard] to Table Mesa along Broadway is disturbing. Are there any posted wildfire evacuation routes, signage or Boulder webpages?”
Boulder has no pre-determined wildfire evacuation routes, and it’s unlikely to ever have them like Florida does for hurricanes, given the erratic nature of fire. Consider the scenario, for instance, where Boulder’s emergency personnel focuses training on directing residents down South Boulder Road, and then a wildfire engulfs South Boulder Road. What would be the plan then?
“Many times our fires are going to be wind-driven, no-notice events,” said Mike Chard, director of Boulder County’s Office of Disaster Management. “We’re talking about minutes to hours to get people evacuated.”
Despite this, there are steps that can be taken. Almost a year ago, residents of Boulder County voted for new sales taxes to fund fire prevention and education — including the development of procedures for getting people out of harm’s way. Chard said when it comes to evacuation, he and his colleagues are now pinpointing “choke points” — areas where evacuation traffic gets congested — for different areas of the city and county. By getting emergency personnel to these intersections early in an evacuation to keep traffic flowing, more residents can get out faster.
“Without that traffic management, you start to see 45 minutes to go four blocks, and we want to avoid that [in a future disaster],” Chard said.
But implementing much more than that on the roads is not feasible.
When hurricanes approach, weather forecasts offer increased time to evacuate and allow for creativity to fight traffic congestion. In Georgia, authorities implement “contraflow” — converting eastbound lanes of the interstate into westbound lanes for evacuees. This doubles the capacity for cars moving away from the coast.
Yet in a wildfire, Chard explained, contraflow is almost never an option. Though more people need to leave an area faster, not everyone is trying to get out.
During the NCAR fire, first responders reported as much traffic going into evacuated neighborhoods as was coming out. Alongside emergency personnel racing to battle the flames were residents who had just found out their houses might burn, causing them to rush back to get pets and important documents.
Therefore traffic-directing officers are likely the best option. But even more important, Chard said, is knowing multiple ways out of your neighborhood. When everyone is leaving their homes at once, they’re going to overwhelm the city’s infrastructure. By knowing an alternate route, when you see gridlock starting you can avoid joining it.
Chard said the county has been pushing this idea of personal responsibility, urging people not to solely rely on emergency personnel, as it can be the difference between surviving a catastrophic fire or not.
“A lot of evacuations are neighbors helping neighbors,” he said. “Especially if it’s a large, dense urban population, there’s physically not enough resources initially. We’re going to be surging in as quickly as we can. But it’s a whole community response when we have these disasters.”
New countywide evacuation platform comes online
An important tool for managing gridlock during evacuations is notifying people about the need to evacuate as early as possible so they have more time to leave. Starting this month, a new countywide evacuation communication platform is available online to facilitate this.
First launched by the City of Boulder after the Marshall Fire, Zonehaven — now called Genasys Protect — allowed Boulderites to follow the evacuations of the Sunshine Canyon wildland fire last year. At the time, Chard said he wished the entire county was on the platform. Now it is.
The platform splits Boulder County into a series of zones that residents can monitor to check for evacuation order or pre-evacuation alerts in their area. They can also keep an eye on whether nearby neighborhoods are being told to leave and start packing their own essentials.
As of now, Genesys Protect requires a human in the back-end to transfer information from the city or county’s dispatch center and put it in the system. But that might change.
“We hope to see that by the end of the year, or shortly thereafter, it won’t require a human interface to change the status of the zone to show it’s under evacuation order,” Chard said, explaining that information could be pulled automatically from the dispatch center onto the website.
The zones defined on the Genasys Protect platform also provide a benefit to first responders across the county. Personnel no longer have to try to describe what area they want evacuated to someone back at the dispatch center. Instead, they can just refer to a predetermined zone. This is especially helpful in a county with 23 different fire districts.
“Many of these alerting areas are going across jurisdictional boundaries,” Chard said. He added that another recent change, agreed to by fire districts across the county, allows anyone from any jurisdiction to request an evacuation without having to go through a lengthy bureaucratic process. This trust among departments is expected to help get people to safety faster.
Many other alert services are still in place and should be used by Boulderites alongside Genasys Protect. Wireless notifications will still be sent to residents in broad geographical areas, similar to Amber Alerts. In evacuation situations, emergency vehicles will also traverse the streets with sirens and loudspeakers. And Boulderites can sign up for Everbridge alerts that will send more localized information to their phones.
But though the city and county are working to improve the alert system and the evacuation flow, Chard said trusting your gut is still a worthwhile option.
“If you feel there is a danger, don’t wait for an alert to leave,” he said. “You are the first piece of the alert and warning process.”
“And if you get an evacuation order, that’s not the time to be packing. You’re wasting valuable time. It is about life safety at that time. It’s time to get out.”