Many questions, but little certainty, on potential emergency strategies
September 28, 2023
There have been questions about what local emergency planning, including evacuation and communication, is in place for Cathlamet in the event of a large fire or other disaster, and Cathlamet Fire Chief Vernon Barton, PUD General Manager Dan Kay, and Undersheriff Gary Howell were at the Cathlamet Town Council meeting last Monday to give some answers.
“It’s still fire season,” Mayor David Olson said. “We want to get the conversation started.” Olson wanted to know: How are emergency alerts given? How do people know where to go and what to do, particularly when electronic communications are down?
Barton talked about reverse 911, which will contact residents in case of emergency, if they opt in, and another system that state emergency management can use to reach people geographically by text, providing their phones are turned on.
When the mayor asked if there was anyone locally who could send out something like that, he was told that it would be up to the sheriff and the local emergency manager to make the request to state emergency management and identify the location affected by the disaster.
The local emergency manager, Beau Renfro, was not in attendance.
Barton said it was unlikely that all communications systems would go down and when asked, said there was no longer a town siren.
Howell explained that the comprehensive emergency management plan, which would be used in case of a forest fire, flooding, storms, or any other kind of disaster, was a basic outline, designed to be fluid in order to address any situation and location.
“Depending on what the emergency is, is going to depend on what the response is,” Howell said. “It is an outline and a guide, but it is not a 100 percent set way of how things are going to be done.”
He suggested that the council get their hands on a copy and get to know it.
Kay said that the PUD was active in vegetation management, tree trimming, clearing brush, and spraying to prevent future growth. They had just completed a contract with a tree contractor to trim trees along SR 4. All these things are done to reduce risk of fire.
One local resident, Steven Hansen, said he was down at the marina watching a pilot fill his tanks with river water to dump on the Broken Gate fire near Westport earlier this year. When a sailboat pulled right into the area the pilot was landing to gawk, Hansen wondered why that water space wasn’t secured by either the fire department or the sheriff’s office.
He had more questions about community support and alternate routes, as well as whether there were big back up generators available for use if necessary.
Council member Robert Stowe asked where people would be evacuating to in case of an emergency.
“It’s very situational,” Howell said. “We only have so many places in Wahkiakum that can handle those kind of people. Other than the school and the gyms there are not really other locations set up for long term situations.”
Stowe then asked Public Works Superintendent David McNally if he had received any training.
McNally said it was likely he would respond to water or sewer issues, but would not be aiding with something like an evacuation.
“How can we help you coordinate?” Stowe asked, suggesting getting several entities involved in training exercises.
“I know that a part of the intention here was for us to feel reassured,” Council Member Kermit Chamberlin said. “I don’t. It seems to me that as Councilman Stowe has indicated that there is a fair amount of lack of training and chaos in what would happen if we have a real catastrophe. Like the earthquake we’ve all been warned about for decades that could happen in 15 minutes or 1500 years.
“I understand the fluidity you are dealing with in chaotic situations,” he continued, “but it’s not very reassuring to folks in the town who are wondering what might happen if they needed to respond in an emergency situation.”
The conversation is likely to continue.