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DailyTidings.com
  • Oak Knoll fire showed holes in city's response

    Officials working to improve evacuations, recovery after fire
  • Officials are trying to address problems in the city's disaster response effort that arose during the Oak Knoll fire.
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  • As soon as Brita Hazell noticed 20-foot flames lurching above homes in her neighborhood that day in August, she prepared to evacuate her home on Twin Pines Circle. She hurriedly stuffed insurance papers in her purse and was about to leave when a law enforcement officer pounded on her door and said, "Get out now." The fire on Oak Knoll Drive, he said, could spread to her home within minutes.
    Hazell got out, but then realized she didn't know where to go.
    She went to the bottom of the Oak Knoll Golf Course, thinking someone would drive by and tell her what to do next. She watched the black smoke and waited.
    She wanted to know whether her home had burned. She wanted to know where she should go. She wanted information.
    "I parked up there and just stood there and waited," she said. "I couldn't find anyone who knew what to do. The police were busy with traffic and the firefighters were busy with fire."
    Hazell waited at the bottom of the golf course for six hours, she said. At about 11 p.m., she went to the golf course parking lot, where she discovered a respite center had been set up. Finally, she learned her home had been spared and she could return.
    Hazell hadn't been told where to go because there was no official place for her — or any of the residents of the 70 other houses being evacuated — to go.
    Richard Randleman, the city's Community Emergency Response Team program coordinator, aims to change this. Likewise, police and fire officials are trying to address problems in the city's disaster response effort that arose during the Oak Knoll fire.
    The officials know that although the Oak Knoll fire was the worst residential fire in at least 100 years in Ashland — burning 11 homes and damaging three — there are bound to be other fires and other disasters.
    Next time, they don't want the same problems to reappear, they said.
    "I think one positive thing that's come out of this is it's given us the opportunity to think about ways we can do things better, across the board," Randleman said. "We learn things from every mobilization, and we learned something from the Oak Knoll fire."
    The post-disaster response had been slow because there had been no plan for the aftermath of such an event, Randleman said.
    "We knew what to do to get people out of the danger area, but now what we can improve on is, 'What do we do after?'" he said.
    Beginning next month, CERT will start creating a post-disaster response plan for events such as the Oak Knoll fire. In January, the all-volunteer organization will begin to train members to implement the new plan.
    "The fire department is very capable of putting out fires, and everything that goes along with that, but it's that post-disaster recovery that we really haven't looked at before, because we really haven't had to," Randleman said.
    "Unfortunately, it's not something the city has the resources to do, so we're going to lean on the volunteer component and I think they can do it and they're eager to do it."
    During the Oak Knoll fire, other evacuees were also confused by the situation, according to police radio traffic during the event.
    "The evacuees are wanting to know where to go," Ashland Police Officer Bon Stewart said at 5:29 p.m., about 45 minutes after the fire began igniting homes on Oak Knoll Drive.
    "At this time we don't have a designated spot," Officer Steve MacLennan said.
    The respite center was set up more than an hour after the evacuations were complete, Randleman said.
    "There was a gap there between being able to tell people, 'You need to leave your home because of fire,' and being able to tell people where they should go," he said.
    Although in the future, emergency workers may not be able to set up respite centers immediately, even with a coherent plan, Randleman hopes to shorten the time it took during the Oak Knoll fire, he said.
    He also hopes to be able to more easily disseminate information to evacuees and other community members. The city has agreed to have CERT take over its emergency radio station, 1700 AM, and CERT will update it frequently with information during disasters, he said. Response team members also will set up signs that direct people to tune into the station and that point people to respite centers.
    "Information is critical, because that's what people really need to be able to take the next step," he said.
    Police and fire officials also plan to make some changes to their emergency response procedures.
    Ashland Fire Chief John Karns, who was trying to simultaneously monitor four radio frequencies during the fire, hopes to streamline the emergency radio traffic.
    "There was some confusion initially," he said. "A lot of the communication could be voiceless, and once we have those systems, they'll help eliminate some of the chaos on the radio."
    He's installed old laptops in some fire engines that allow firefighters to send computerized messages to dispatch, eliminating some radio traffic. Ashland Fire & Rescue has applied for a grant to purchase updated versions of the Mobile Data Terminals system, he said.
    Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness plans to have his officers record evacuees' names and contact information, if there's time during the evacuation process, so officials can contact the residents afterward and ensure that everyone made it out of the area safely.
    "After the fire, we tried to chase down everybody who should have been in those houses, and if we had had their contact information, it would have been a lot easier," he said.
    Even though city officials are reassessing their disaster response plans — and creating new plans — there's no way to be completely prepared for a catastrophe, Holderness said.
    "You tell me what areas are going to be evacuated, and I'll come up with a really good plan for you," he said.
    "A random fire someplace is kind of hard to do, but we'll continue to practice. We learned some lessons this time."
    Hazell, who is a member of CERT, hopes to be involved in the organization's post-disaster response planning.
    "There are a lot of things to think about," she said. "We need to have a plan. When you're in a disaster situation like that, all you want is direction. You don't want a lot of confusion, because it's already confusing enough."
    Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.
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