Rodeo-Chediski evacuation & planning

Show Low area residents drive east on US 60 away from the wall of smoke and flame of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002. County hazard mitigation plans map out how to handel wildfires and other disasters.

NAVAJO COUNTY — Navajo County continues to prepare for disaster – with a little help from its friends in the state and federal government.

The tragedy in Paradise, California, when 85 people died because they didn’t evacuate fast enough in the face of an onrushing wildfire has underscored the stakes when it comes to emergency preparation – especially in a county increasingly prone to out-of-control mega fires.

The Navajo County Board of Supervisors last week accepted a series of state and federal grants to boost its efforts to prepare for the worst – including a $220,000 matching grant from the Federal Office of Emergency management.

However, the existing emergency plan includes tens of millions in funding requests for money to prepare for floods and wildfires. Most jurisdictions don’t even have a complete evacuation plan – or at least seek big federal grants to improve the plans they’ve developed.

Emergency Management Director Catrina Jenkins presented the annual grant renewal request, which provides funds “to work with our citizens and partners to prevent, respond to, recover from and mitigate emergencies throughout Navajo County.”

The county spends the money on training and communications to ensure everyone from the sheriff’s department to the public health department has a plan in case of an emergency, whether it’s a wildfire, an overturned tanker truck on the highway or an outbreak of some highly contagious, lethal disease like ebola. The county also acts as the clearing house for emergency preparation – and grants – for all the incorporated towns.

The biggest grant approved by the board of supervisors last week provides up to $222,000 from FEMA, which requires a similar amount in county funding. The grant will help the county prepare and update plans and make sure fire departments, police departments and health departments all get the training they need to mount a coordinated response in a disaster.

The county also accepted a $3,000 grant from the federal government for training and planning in case of a hazardous materials spill, which would most likely involve a train crash or the crash of a semi on the Interstate 40.

In addition, the county accepted a $23,600 federal grant with an $8,000 local match to buy a backup generator for the Joseph City Fire District, so the fire station could continue to function in the event of a blackout.

The need for a rushed evacuation in the face of floods or wildfires remains the most likely major disaster facing the region. National wildfire risk ratings indicate that many forested communities like Show Low, Pinetop and Heber/Overgaard face a greater risk of a catastrophic wildfire than did Paradise, California.

Ironically, Paradise had a well-developed evacuation plan – designed to prevent traffic jams on the limited roads out of the mountain community. The phased evacuation plan prompted officials to delay ordering an immediate evacuation as a distant wildfire began to blow up. Fierce Santa Ana winds whipped the fire into a frenzy much faster than emergency planning officials anticipated.

Some people didn’t get the word to evacuate or decided to ride out the fire in their homes. Some people waited too long and were incinerated in their cars as they fled on the limited number of escape routes.

See Tuesday’s Independent for more details about the county’s existing hazard mitigation plan.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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