Mitchell Byars – Colorado Hometown Weekly
Jan. 7—Boulder County agencies are working on making sure all evacuation maps for natural disasters are on one site after confusion during the county’s most recent wildfire.
The Sunshine Wildland Fire started on Dec. 19 as a structure fire in the 2900 block of Sunshine Canyon before it quickly spread to wildland fueled by high winds. It was contained several days later after burning about 19 acres and destroying one home and damaging another.
At one point, about 1,000 people in unincorporated Boulder County were under mandatory evacuation orders, while many more on the western edge of the city of Boulder were under evacuation warnings.
As evacuation notices were going out and then lifted, there was some confusion resulting from the city and county using separate websites that did not include evacuation information from the other.
Boulder County put its evacuation information on its emergency site, but the city of Boulder put its information on ZoneHaven, an online mapping tool the city was using for the first time.
This led to some residents thinking that evacuation orders for the county had been lifted at the same time as evacuation warnings were lifted for the city when that was not the case.
“We were using our standard map that we’ve used on every other disaster, and it takes a little longer to set up,” said Mike Chard, director of the Boulder Office of Emergency Management. “We know that’s a point of issue.”
Adding to the confusion was that many residents on social media took “western Boulder” to mean both the western side of the city of Boulder and the areas west of city limits.
Boulder County actually had been in discussions to also move to Zone Haven even before the fire, but the process for getting approval to move to the new system has taken longer than with the city of Boulder due to the amount of agencies that needed to be on board.
“With the county, you have to coordinate support and get everyone to review it,” Chard said. “This has come up as a potential solution for mapping, it just happens to have moved at a little different speed in the county.”
Unfortunately, the fire struck during the window in which Boulder was on Zone Haven but the county was not.
“At some point we knew there was going to be this lag time between the city and the county,” Boulder Fire-Rescue spokeswoman Marya Washburn said. “We anticipated it because we were rolling it out prior to the county being fully able to. We had done some preparation work because we knew there were probably going to be nuances we’d have to explain in the moment.”
On the left is the map #Boulder County was using, where we still have three mandatory evacuation areas. On the right, the map used by the city, where there were temporarily evacuation warnings pic.twitter.com/hF0UPNcq1z
Apart from the confusion, Washburn said the Zone Haven system itself worked well for the city.
“Dispatchers and firefighters felt it was a lot easier and faster to deploy than the NCAR fire for example,” Washburn said. “For that, we’re glad we had it and we’re looking forward to it being even more usable.”
Washburn said the hope is that once everyone is on Zone Haven and it is completely up and running, fire crews can even add things like controlled burns to the map so residents have one site where they can always go to check on possible fire danger.
“If we can put something like that on a map as an advisory, people can go look at that and see its a ditch burn,” Washburn said. “Our hope is to be consistently pointing people to the same place.”
Chard said the issue will be discussed at an upcoming Boulder Regional Telephone Service Authority meeting, and the hope is that all of Boulder County will soon be on Zone Haven.
“It’s important to have one mapping platform so that when these things are going across jurisdictional boundaries, people aren’t having to toggle between different sites,” Chard said.
While there was some confusion on getting the evacuation information out to the public, officials said the new county-wide evacuation system put in place following the Marshall Fire did make evacuations run much more smoothly from an operational standpoint.
In prior years, Boulder County had only pre-mapped evacuation “polygons” for areas in the foothills considered to be high fire risk areas. But in the wake of the Marshall Fire and the understanding the threat urban wildfires posed in the wake of climate change, the county decided to map out the entire county to help speed up evacuations and alleviate confusion in the event of a fire that crossed into Boulder County cities.
The pre-mapped polygons allowed fire crews on scene to simply relay which areas they wanted evacuated identified by a simple letter and number combination.
“Before, first responders might have to go through the rigmarole on dispatch, ‘I need you to evacuate this neighborhood from this street to this street,'” Washburn said. “This helps us do it in the safest and most effective way possible. It’s really just an improvement from the process of saying, ‘This road and this road.'”
Chard said with the new polygons in place, getting the county on board and establishing a single site for residents to find evacuation and fire danger information will now hopefully be the final key to making information easy to find during high-stress disasters.
“If so approved, we’ll get this things moving out pretty quick and get this last piece of the puzzle in place,” Chard said.
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