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Where there's smoke

Township evacuates residents to prepare for potential wildfires

Marcus White
Posted 8/16/18

EAGLES NEST - The Arrowhead Region has had a calm wildfire season this year, overshadowed by the massive blazes in Canada and California. But history has not been kind to northern St. Louis County …

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Where there's smoke

Township evacuates residents to prepare for potential wildfires

Posted

EAGLES NEST - The Arrowhead Region has had a calm wildfire season this year, overshadowed by the massive blazes in Canada and California. But history has not been kind to northern St. Louis County and the Boundary Waters, and with that in mind, Eagles Nest Township wants its residents to prepare for the worst.

On Saturday, Aug. 11, 25 percent of the township was evacuated during a mock drill that had multiple departments respond to a hypothetical fire near Bear Head State Park. Affected residents had thirty minutes to leave once they received either notification from a designated road ambassador or a fire department official.

At 10 a.m., residents were asked to bring what they would have brought during a real evacuation to the town hall where they were held for the evacuation. Those who didn’t want to stay had the option to leave for Ely or another town to run errands, but still could not return home until they received an all clear from the fire department.

Residents were forewarned of the drill and told what to expect.

McCray said those who chose to stay at home in a real fire would be asked for next-of-kin information should they perish in the blaze. He said once flames surrounded a house, there would be nothing firefighters would be able to do to save the residents.

“You can stay in the house as it burns down around you, or you take your go-bag and you get out,” Fire Chief Larry McCray said. “We live in the woods here, we are just as vulnerable. A wildland fire with heavy winds, we could be looking at what happened 100 years ago. It takes 15 people to fight a structure fire. When you have multiple, when you do the math, there just aren’t enough firefighters in the Arrowhead. The old cliché, the houses can be replaced, the people can’t. The more you do it, the more people see it as simple, and a way to get ready.”

McCray and other officials logged every registration and every call, whether by phone or radio, to track the evacuation in real time.

The past century has reminded residents in the region the necessity of the drills when it comes to fires. From the 1918 fires that killed 450 in a matter of days to the Mother’s Day Fire in 1992, and more recently at Foss Lake, and a close call near Ely in 2012, McCray wants people ready when the next fire come through.

“It’s a good idea, especially when you live in an area where fires are a reality,” Beth Loughran said. Loughran is from Minneapolis and owns a cabin in the township. “It made us talk about what is most important to us.”

She said the drill wasn’t an inconvenience to her or her family since living in a downtown Minneapolis apartment for most of the year meant they had been through similar drills.

The idea to have the drill came after Ely set up a new emergency response committee, and McCray felt the township should do the same. From there, a new emergency plan was developed, and McCray and other township volunteers and employees decided a drill was in order to test if the plan would work.

McCray said the first attempt worked, and now they have information to work off of for future drills and plans. All of the residents were contacted, located and registered at the townhall within 38 minutes.

And while that is eight minutes slower than the expectation, McCray said, all things considered, it was still much faster than if the department had to go door-to-door.

While communication was adequate, McCray said it was where the department identified the biggest need for improvement.

“The communication system needs work,” he said. “Our road ambassadors have 20-30 families they need to send messages to and it jams the communication tower.”

Only one cell phone tower services the area, and sending dozens of text messages causes the system to choke.

“If the tower went down, we would be out in the street going door-to-door with public announcements on vehicles,” McCray said. And that would have taken hours over the 38 minutes.

With multiple agencies participating, McCray brought in amateur ham radio operators to help augment the system and keep the emergency communications strong throughout the exercise.

All-in-all, however, McCray was incredibly pleased with the results and the willingness of neighbors to help one another.

“The cooperation, that was a surprise, everyone who came in asked if they could help in some way,” he said. “We had departments that had not worked together before, that worked went really well. They went right to work and did what they were supposed to do.”

As for another drill, McCray said one is already in the works for next summer. He said this past weekend was simple, and he wanted to add complications, such as evacuating residents by boat across the lake, or having to transfer some to Ely.

Whatever next year’s drill shapes up to be, he hopes it is just that, and all of the practice won’t need to be put to use before then.

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