With several fires still actively burning in Oregon, California and all around Del Norte County, representatives of local help organizations, police, fire departments, media and churches recently came together at the Washington Street firehouse to discuss their emergency response roles and find ways to ensure community members are better informed.
Office of Emergency Services Manager Cindy Henderson said she called the meeting last Thursday because of the fires surrounding Del Norte County and she’s growing concerned over Oregon’s Klondike Fire, which was, and still is moving directly toward the town of Selma on U.S. 199.
“Residents of Selma are obviously concerned about being displaced from their homes,” said Kymmie Scott, Emergency manager for Tolowa Dee-ni Nation. Scott said the situation is similar to what occurred last year with the Chetco Bar Fire that threatened evacuation of Brookings.
“The nearest Red Cross shelter that’s being set up is in Grant Pass, so some residents have expressed concern about the fire, if it makes a push, and their ability to get to Grants Pass.”
As of Monday morning, active blazes in the Klondike Fire were very near, but had not yet crossed U.S. 199.
Scott said residents relayed being told that should U.S. 199 be closed for the fire, they would be evacuated to Gold Beach.
“They’re having a problem asking California for help,” Scott said.
Henderson said the issues come up from time to time, but for emergency managers, borders do not apply.
“We’re going to ask for assistance from the nearest community that can handle it,” Henderson said, noting that she has had no such requests from Oregon. “We need to make sure we know what their needs are if that happens.”
Henderson said local hotels and campgrounds are starting to fill with residents fleeing the heat and smoke. She has also been contacted by people from Lake and Mendocino counties looking for assistance.
“We don’t have a budget for Safeway cards or Walmart cards for a disaster that’s happening three counties away,” she said. “At the same time, I am getting phone calls asking ‘how can we help?’”
She said with the fire season underway and the county surrounded by fires, she wanted to plan ahead for how to help.
Another purpose of the meeting was to bring local organizations together to assess what each has, its strengths and limitations and what each can do in a disaster situation.
“We know you want to help. it’s just human nature,” she said. “Del Norte County is very resilient and we know you want to help, but if we don’t plan ahead, and we don’t do it as a community... we will fail, so we have to keep moving forward as a community.”
Henderson explained that COAD — Community Organizations Active in Disasters — includes community organizations that provide help in addition to nonprofit and government organizations.
“Really, everybody has a role in disaster preparedness, response and recovery,” she said.
COAD’s three models are to prepare, respond and recover, in the event of an emergency.
Henderson said a lot happens behind the scenes during an emergency that few are aware of. Along with having all volunteers fire departments in Del Norte County, many other volunteers answer the call when disasters happen. She mentioned neighbors helping neighbors programs around the county, to help people prepare and assist each other with training, networking, and acquisition of emergency equipment like generators, water filtration, and medical supplies on both sides of the river now in place in Gasquet.
“They’ve done HAM radio training, they’ve done CERT training,” she said. “That’s just one community that has everything from a fatality master plan to food and housing for their animals.”
A disaster response team for animals also meets regularly.
“We have a lot of organizations in Del Norte County that are helpful and active besides county government,” Henderson said, also mentioning Red Cross and United Way volunteers and tribal agencies.
“We have to really work together in a whole community approach,” she said, adding that it makes the community more prepared to respond when a disaster happens without warning. “We expect you to prepare to be able to support yourselves for up to a week, because if we have that bad Cascadia event and a big earthquake that sends a tsunami, our first responders (will be) victims also. Red Cross volunteers will be running for their lives. Law enforcement will be doing the best to get out and get their families out. You have to be ready to take care of yourself in that type of event.”
Henderson explained alert levels as Level 1 — the first news of a possible or pending emergency, such as a distant quake that may cause a tsunami. Level 2 notifies police, fire and other officials, activating them to be ready. Level 3 is when the emergency occurs. More than 600 people in the county have gone through the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program, learning everything from search and rescue to disaster psychology. Henderson said meetings take place regularly involving all involved agencies and groups.
“What you get there is every imaginable agency that has a response in Del Norte County, at the table,” Henderson said. “Sometimes, we have 30 agencies, sometimes we have 70, it really depends. We have everything from private business to schools to hospitals to clinics to law enforcement, whoever.”
Attendees shared information about their role in emergency situations and shared ideas for improving preparedness and communication.
Get notified, be prepared
Henderson urged all residents to sign up for Everbridge, an alert system that calls residents in times of disaster or emergency. Sign up at www.preparedelnorte.com by clicking the link that says Del Norte Community Alert System.
She also urged residents to take CERT training, churches to ask their members to sign up and asked help organizations to inventory what they are able to do.
“We know we can’t do it as government, as tribes, as cities, we can’t do it on our own, we just can’t,” Henderson said. “We have to depend on nonprofits, we have to depend on faith-based (organizations), and we know that.” She said in most disasters, 80 percent of recovery is handled by nonprofit agencies, making it necessary for all to coordinate in such a way that each is aware of what is being provided and what can be done in order to avoid duplication of services.
Henderson urged all to work with others as opposed to “going rogue” and trying to handle segments of the disaster without notifying others.
“When we exercise and participate and we plan for disasters in Del Norte County, we come together as a whole,” Henderson said. “If this little piece of the puzzle is training and doing their own thing, and the rest of the puzzle doesn’t know what’s going on, how is that going to work in the event of a disaster?”
Last month, a training of CERT members addressed the setup and operation of a volunteer reception center.
“We have a lot of volunteers who will come out of the woodwork in a disaster and want to help, but if you don’t have some control with them and you don’t have then going out in a controlled fashion, they can become a problem.”
Bringing up the possibility of a road closure on Last Chance Grade, Henderson spoke of how parents and students of Margaret Keating School will be reunified.
The group also discussed the management of donations, which some referred to as “the second disaster.”
Henderson said donations of used clothing and food items will quickly get out of control.
“If you have all these items and you want to help, have a rummage sale and take the proceeds and hand them a gift card to Safeway,” she said. “They don’t need us to be driving to Redding and driving to Chetco Bar with clothing and sofas because they are in a shelter. They don’t have a place for it.”
Henderson suggested having local training on donation management to keep that from happening.
Red Cross Coordinator Mary Dorman explained excessive clothing and other donations will often pile up and rot because Red Cross doesn’t have staff to sort through it all. She said others will use the emergency as an excuse to get rid of unwanted clothing items.
“We saw prom dresses donated in the Clayton Fire,” Dorman said. “They don’t need it. With financial donations, they can go and buy the diapers they want for their child, not the diapers you thought they’d want.”
Henderson and Dorman discussed seeing warehouses full of donated items that go unused after emergencies.
Attendees also discussed the management of monetary donations, and whether a local agency or business would be willing to take on the management of gift cards, checks and cash following an emergency.
Looking around the large room, Henderson asked all attendees to bring more agencies to the table so local preparedness and response can continue to grow.
Those wanting to learn more about emergency management, training, response and preparedness, the Neighbors helping Neighbors program and more should go to preparedelnorte.com for a list of meetings, resources, schedules and class dates.
The next COAD meeting is 2 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Washington Street firehouse.