Although some residents may have been startled to see Humvees and police cruisers crawling around Happy Canyon on May 3, it was only a mock wildfire drill that had public safety officials converging on the subdivision.
But with warmer temperatures and wind speeds climbing, and keeping in mind the raging wildfires the state has seen in recent years, Douglas County residents shouldn't take the exercise any less seriously, according to sheriff's office spokesman Ron Hanavan.
“Today, we're focusing on evacuations. The major goals are life and property safety,” Hanavan said, urging residents to sign up for emergency alerts and prepare evacuation kits. “We're right around the corner from wildfire season and this is real-world stuff. It can happen anywhere.”
Crews were dispatched to evacuate and protect homes in the Happy Canyon area, where the mock fire ensued. National Guard officials set up roadblocks and checkpoints while trying to corral participating residents to the evacuation center, which was located at the Douglas County Justice Center.
The interagency drill included officials from the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, the Colorado National Guard and various fire agencies in the area and ran from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. The drill simulated a wildland fire, giving agencies a chance to practice command and control, communications and support functions. Citizens were notified before the drill and invited to participate in the simulated evacuation. The agencies set up a command post at the Douglas County Fairgrounds.
Lt. Col. Mitchell Utterback said the National Guard has had “a lot of practice” over the last four years with wildfires like Black Forest and Waldo Canyon.
“The goal is always to save lives, then mitigate,” Utterback said. “And we've been practicing our asses off.”
Elizabeth Fire Chief T.J. Steck, who serves as an incident commander for a multi-agency task force made up of officials from Douglas and Elbert counties, said the drill is just as much about cohesion as it is about training officers and firefighters.
“It's different now. It used to be really important so that responders knew their job, but as we break down our fences and start working with our partners at National Guard, our partners in other counties (and) statewide, we all have to work together,” Steck said. “So it's become even more important that we can forget about the jurisdictional boundaries and realize that we all need to pitch in on a major incident.”
Steck also said that citizen care has climbed up the list of priorities after the state lost residents in area wildfires and floods.
“We have, as an industry, put a much larger emphasis on evacuating and care of our citizens, training them to be part of the solution,” Steck said.
Resident David Smukler said he was glad to see the agencies out for the drill, but it dredged up concerns about his own Happy Canyon home.
“I'm concerned about it (wildfires). I've been here for 40 years and we've been lucky so far,” Smukler said, pointing to I-25, which runs near the subdivision. “My big problem is that highway. People flip cigarettes out and who knows what happens from there?”
Smukler, who has large pine trees in his front yard, said he thinks Happy Canyon, where he has lived for 40 years, is vulnerable.
“Most of the places that burnt last summer were like this,” he said.
Another drill occurred at the Douglas County Justice Center in Castle Rock the same day, involving 30 vehicles attempting to reach a designated location within 90 minutes.