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Ashland’s evacuation task force prepares for fire season 

Ashland Fire Station # 2
Jane Vaughan
Ashland Fire Station # 2

Since last August, Ashland’s evacuation task force has been working on developing better protocols for mass evacuations.

Now, with another fire season underway as of June 1, the group has made some progress and met most recently on Thursday.

The goal of the task force is to develop best practices for the city in case of a mass evacuation. The group includes public works, police, fire and rescue and the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The task force has hung new signs indicating evacuation zones throughout town and made plans to set up an Emergency Operations Center if needed.

Ashland’s Emergency Manager Kelly Burns said the city's Evacuation Time Estimate Study from 2021 doesn’t clearly define roles of different city agencies during a mass evacuation, so part of the task force's work is figuring out who will take over which job in the event of an emergency.

One problem is that the city doesn't have as many staff as it needs.

"If somebody grew some money trees or something like that, then maybe we could hire all the firefighters and cops that we would need to manage this thing, but nobody has that. The city governments, the municipalities, don't have enough people," Burns said.

If the city were to face another event similar to the 2020 Almeda Fire this summer, Burns said Ashland would be more prepared now that it was then, especially since it now has an emergency manager and an Emergency Operations Center.

But, "I know we will still be severely challenged because a fast-moving wildfire that starts burning houses and starts taking neighborhoods, there's just not the capacity to fully control that to make it safe for everybody. So we're going to give it our best one-two punch, and then we're going to keep fighting," he said.

Emergency agencies are working hard to be ready, but Burns said some of the responsibility to be prepared is on the citizens, too.

"If you want some ideas about what you can put in your go kit, if you're thinking about 'Well, what do I do for my pet?' there's actually resources out there, there's tons of good resources, it just takes people doing a little bit every week to get ready for something like this. And then ultimately, I'd love it if people practiced their evacuation routes and then learned second ways [in case the first is blocked]," he said.

The task force will next meet at the end of July.

During the Almeda Fire, which destroyed over 2,300 homes, mostly in Talent and Phoenix, many in Jackson County didn't receive emergency notifications.

A 2021 After-Action Reportabout the response to the Almeda and South Obenchain fires highlighted some key weaknesses in the way city and county leaders responded, including miscommunication, understaffing, insufficient training and lack of coordination.

The Evacuation Time Estimate Study from 2021 noted that Ashland "has limited ingress/egress routes," due to its topography, and the entire city takes four hours, on average, to evacuate, if residents can evacuate in either direction. It said that main streets will experience congestion and delays, even in best-case scenarios.

More information about emergency preparedness can be found on the City of Ashland website.

Jackson County also recently finished a two-year project to create evacuation zones throughout the county. Previously, only six cities in the county had evacuation zones.

The project includes new mapping software from Genasys Protect to make it easier for residents to find their zones and see evacuation routes.

Jackson County Emergency Manager Holly Powers said it’s really helpful for residents throughout the county to know which zone they live in in case of an emergency.

"Then you can also understand kind of the area that would be evacuated and your neighbors and the road structures or road systems that would be impacted. So we're just trying to create a little more access to information," she said.

She urged residents to spend some time ensuring they're prepared for a potential evacuation, like knowing their evacuation zone, buying food and batteries for their go bag and signing up for emergency alerts.

"It can just feel very overwhelming or daunting or expensive," she said. "Really the best way to improve your preparedness is just one thing at a time."

More information can be found on the Jackson County Emergency Management website.

Jane Vaughan is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. Jane began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media.