Lessons Learned From Benton County Fire Evacuation Drill

Wildfires – manmade or natural – can happen anywhere. So Corvallis neighborhood associations and the Corvallis and Benton County Fire Departments are ramping up their efforts to be ready, just in case. For the third year, Corvallis area residents practiced how to get out of danger should a big fire happen near them. 

In early May, we told you about an evacuation drill happening in several local neighborhoods and the Oregon state “Ready, Set, Go!” plan.  

Fire evacuation exercises that include community members, vehicles, and a check-in takes a lot of hard work and planning to safely execute. Under the leadership of Corvallis’ Fire Emergency Manager, Dave Busby, the fire department, and local and county police departments, plus the Corvallis Community Emergency Response Team (CERT for Benton County and CCERT for Corvallis) volunteers, the recent drill involving over 11 neighborhoods and 192 vehicles went well, and taught everyone involved about areas that need improvement.  

Why Drill? 

The practice evacuation drill’s purpose is for chosen communities to use predetermined escape routes and then report to the public safety officials the results of their experiences. 

As Busby says, this isn’t about doing it right, it’s about learning the lessons from the exercise. 

Participating residents came from Oak Creek, Brownly, Marshal, Grand Oaks, Skyline West, Soap Creek, Tampico, Stoneybrook, Timberhill, Vineyard Mountain, West Hills and other neighborhoods. These neighborhoods coordinated to engage in the event, receive the Corvallis and Linn-Benton County alerts, and residents knew to leave for the checkpoints at one of three levels – Be Ready; Be Set; Go! 

A Motivated Family From Skyline West 

“My parents lost their house in the Paradise Camp Fire – making it out with absolutely nothing. Our motivation for participating in this fire evacuation drill is close to our hearts,” said Kathryn Melvin, sitting next to her husband Lloyd with their two sons, Jack and Ben, their dogs Freddie and Rooney, and Chester the cat who was hiding in the back of a very loaded Subaru. 

“We have done the evacuation practice the last two years, and each time we add things so that we can survive for three to four days,” said Lloyd Melvin. “We have enough human and pet food, plus a solar powered fridge. This year we noticed we did not have propane for our cookstove.”  

Fortunately the Melvins also go camping often, so the gear they have is used frequently for fun, not just emergencies. 

Oak Creek Valley Couple Promotes Value of Preparation 

Chris and Heidi Hagler came through the checkpoint early, and stopped to discuss how the Oak Creek Valley Safety Action Group (OCVSAG) is focused on safety concerns such as road speed and parking, and in light of this day’s event safe evacuation routes through Oak Creek Valley. Their community is one that potentially has access to the forestry roads for escape. An OCVSAG priority is to advocate for routes that are safe, with reliable gate access in an emergency. They said that the lessons learned from last year’s drill have been informative, and an additional exercise using the routes is planned in June.  

The Haglers gave a “hats off to Dave Busby” for his hard work in putting together the fire evacuation exercises. “There are so many vulnerable people,” they said. “Executing a drill is hard work, plus knowing it’s about learning the lessons and analyzing what works.” 

They also gave credit to another Oak Creek resident, Ann Eissenger, for her efforts which resulted in Senator Sarah Gelser sponsoring a successful state bill that created a new funding opportunity for evacuation route development. 

According to Heidi Hagler, one lesson they are taking with them is that “these drills take weeks of planning – in an actual emergency, the logistics need to fall into place in a rapidly changing environment. The value of preparation can’t be understated.” 

Soap Creek Valley’s Neighborhood Coordinator 

Mark Yeager has lived in the Soap Creek Valley since 1987, and understands the importance of these exercises. This is his second time participating in the drill, and he is serving as the neighborhood coordinator. Last year they had 13 households involved and 20 homes this year. They’ve done a lot of outreach through newsletters, notices and a community meeting. 

A key lesson he pointed to is the importance of having a “Go Bag” so that you are ready beyond the evacuation, not just with an emergency preparedness kit but with your important papers, insurance information, and any critical medications.  

Another point his community discussed was the best way to drive out of Soap Creek during a wildfire to get out of the Valley and into where it’s open. Yeager said they decided the proper way out is using Coffin Butte Road to HWY 99, and then training people to head north or east, away from the fires. 

The Soap Creek community, which has the Adair Rural Fire & Rescue unstaffed substation with two fire trucks on Soap Creek Road, has identified their own additional resources for fighting fires, such as backhoes, chainsaws and trailers. A core group of people decided to create a database of residents with a focus on special needs such as limited abilities or large animals. 

“In a real emergency we can’t depend on emergency services to come rescue us fast enough, so we want to depend on our community to help each other,” said Yeager. 

Vineyard Mountain, A Corvallis Rural Fire District 

Phil Sollins, Vineyard Mountain resident and Oregon State University Professor Emeritus of Forest Ecosystems, explained how the Corvallis Rural Fire District is “like a ring around the city” and is run through a contract with the Corvallis Fire Department. “Fires don’t pay attention to fire districts,” he said. 

Vineyard Mountain has a “road district” at the top of the mountain – meaning residents on that road pay a tax for maintenance, and the district is a group of neighbors with leaders who coordinate the maintenance plans. According to Sollins, there are about 50 or so households in Vineyard Mountain below that district, all on county roads. Sollins said Joe Heaney, who heads the road district and is lead for the Firewise certification, makes an effort to include those lower homes in all the safety communications. 

According to Sollins, people in the Vineyard Mountain area are getting older, so it’s getting harder to get volunteers to fight the fires. “We aren’t going to be fine because of the impact of climate change…what was once ‘low-risk’ no longer is, and we have to prepare for that,” he said. 

Firewise Certified City Neighborhood 

Sollins and Carrie Berger – a fire program manager at OSU and the fire safety organizer for Skyline West, agreed that her neighborhood is the only Firewise certified district in Corvallis proper. The surrounding county areas may be Firewise, but Skyline West is the only one in the city. Berger hopes that this status changes as more neighborhoods become involved in fire safety. 

“She’s the reason this all started,” Busby said about Berger.  

Berger added, “My heart soars to see the full parking lot because when we started it was only a handful of people. We are so far from where we were three years ago.” In 2019 only Skyline West engaged in the evacuation exercise. 2020’s pandemic issues paused the drill, and in 2021 there were seven neighborhoods.  

Back in 2014 Berger’s Homeowners Association’s safety committee formed a subcommittee to become Firewise certified. She started small, knocking on neighbor’s doors to educate them about wildfire safety and prevention. In 2019, Berger worked for OSU and got state funding for extension fire programs. This gave her access to resources and science-based information beyond “random internet articles.” She shared that information with her community.

After so many years of being Firewise, she wondered “what’s the next level?” She suggested an evacuation drill to Busby, and he agreed. 

That first year, there was a lot of participation, and the Skyline West neighbors grew closer as a community. “In an emergency, I know my neighbors have my back!” said Berger.  

While in following years not as many households attend the drill, they do communicate with her and others about why they can’t or if they’re out of town – the emphasis being they are actively staying aware and making efforts. 

Other Lessons Learned 

With the emphasis on learning lessons from the evacuation exercises, Busby, the CCERT volunteers, and neighborhood leaders met to go over what went well and what needs improving.  

One lesson included that, while participation was better than before, getting even more residents aware and involved is the next goal. The alerts and messaging practices were broader this year than last, but the key point in this area is clarity on why people need to sign up for both Corvallis and Linn-Benton alert systems.  

Another important point is to stay flexible. Meaning they need to stay aware of events happening in the area and be prepared to go somewhere other than Reser Stadium during a football game – for example. This year, Life Community Church offered their parking lot, and based on lessons from last year the team was able to loop vehicles so that traffic on HWY 99 wasn’t backed up for too long.  

The CCERT volunteers who staffed the exercise check-in location received accolades for keeping the event safe, checking in all the vehicles, sharing their knowledge and training, and being kind to everyone. 

During the check-in period, they discovered that there is a need to educate people on the technology involved in the drill and the follow-up survey. One resident from Timberhill noted how a neighbor doesn’t use a smart phone or email, so they made sure she had printed out instructions and was on a list to be checked on during the drill since she wasn’t receiving the emergency “Ready, Set, Go” alerts. Others learned how to use a QR code to access the survey. 

“Several participants knew from training or previous exercises that leaving at the Be Ready, or Be Set alerts would gain them valuable time exiting their neighborhoods,” Busby noted. This staggered timing could also help with avoiding bottlenecks in neighborhoods with limited roads out. 

Community Involvement 

According to Busby, “This exercise is a great way to get community members aware of the process of evacuation in a safe learning environment. By working through the details now and identifying challenges in advance, [it] makes all of us just a little bit safer. The participants that we talked with at the exercise check-in were nothing but appreciative. All local responders can continue to improve our plans, and continue to get ready for something we really never want to happen.” 

Want to get involved and learn more about the lessons learned this year? Register for the June 28 Community Evacuation Webinar. 

If you are interested in the online and in-person trainings offered by CCERT, go to their website or email Cheslah Barkdoll, Corvallis CERT Program Manager and Eileen Takuda, Corvallis CERT Public Information, at corvalliscert@corvallisoregon.gov  

Adair Rural Fire & Rescue is always looking for volunteers. Contact Chief Aaron Harris. 

By Stacey Newman Weldon 

Do you have a story for The Advocate? Email editor@corvallisadvocate.com