Escape routes

People living in Spring Creek have few escape routes from fire or other hazards, as shown in this image from Elko County's Evacuation Traffic Management Plan.

ELKO – On Oct. 19, 2017, the parking lot at the East End Shopping Center was filled with semi-trucks. Heading east on Idaho Street, the shoulder had more trucks parked end-to-end for about two to three miles.

It was the closest location to the on-ramp to Interstate 80 eastbound, which was shut down for a day due to a chemical spill between Halleck and Wells.

Truck drivers who were forced to stop in Elko had a decision to make. They could sit and wait for the Interstate to reopen, or they could take a detour. It would require backtracking to Carlin, taking State Route 278 south to U.S. Highway 50, and then heading east toward U.S. Highway 93 to reconnect with I-80.

Although trucks would be on roads designed for heavy loads, the 300-mile detour was not appealing to semi-truck drivers who decided to wait out the 24-hour delay.

Incidents such as this are a reminder to everyone of the challenges of living in rural northeastern Nevada, mainly when road closures and detours occur.

Understanding the need for having contingency plans in case of an emergency within Elko County is vital, according to Annette Kerr, emergency manager at the Elko County Sheriff’s Office.

“Over 400 miles in our county is on I-80 [and it] is susceptible to all kinds of issues and hazardous chemicals [transported] up and down the Interstate,” Kerr said. In addition to Union Pacific Railroad crossing through Elko County, “people are [transporting] all kinds of things east to west and west to east.”

“We have to be prepared on that end … being the fourth largest county in the United States,” Kerr added.

Planning ahead

The question of how Elko County residents would evacuate safely in the event of a wildfire threatening their neighborhoods has been one pondered by emergency responders and agencies for years.

In 2010, the Elko County Commissioners unanimously approved an evacuation plan to be added to the county’s Emergency Operation Plan. The evacuation plan, updated in 2018, outlines what agencies will do to evacuate or shelter citizens in the event of a wildland fire, hazardous materials release, flooding or winter storm.

“The purpose of this plan is to provide for the orderly and coordinated evacuation, sheltering and mass care of all or any part of the population of Elko County,” the plan’s introduction reads.

The evacuation plan serves as an annex to the county’s main operation plan, which is updated annually. It is put together through input by Elko County emergency responders, personnel and public surveys, Kerr said.

“We obviously know that wildland fires are growing every year, so we try to plan accordingly,” she said.

Kerr and Fire District Administrator Linda Bingaman work together to map and update evacuation routes. They are joined by the Elko Police and Fire Departments, Nevada Highway Patrol, Nevada Division of Forestry, Bureau of Land Management, Nevada Department of Transportation and the Regional Transportation Commission.

In Elko County, the group has identified 13 major routes to move people out in one direction and bring in emergency vehicles on the same road. It doesn’t count smaller roads that longtime residents may immediately know, Kerr said.

“A lot of the locals have ways of maneuvering throughout the county that we don’t list in here,” Kerr explained. “There are too many county roads [to include].”

Spring Creek evacuation

Discussions about developing an evacuation route for residents of the greater Spring Creek area, including Lamoille, Pleasant Valley, Lee, Jiggs, and South Fork have been ongoing. It may have picked up about two years ago when the lightning-caused “E” Fire near Lamoille Summit closed State Route 227 on Sept. 7, 2017.

“I think there was a lot of notoriety to the thought of getting in and out of Spring Creek when we had the ‘E’ fire,” said Bingaman.

The highway was closed when aerial resources were used to dump flame retardant that day. It occurred at a time when many people were on Lamoille Highway commuting to and from work.

In Spring Creek, routes lead out of the area toward Elko, Ely and State Route 229 on Lower Lamoille Road.

“We looked at Spring Creek as a whole,” said Bingaman. “People are going to try to get to the main arteries as fast as they can. So we took those main arteries and directed them to different directions.”

Currently, a subcommittee is looking at finding additional routes that may either involve widening county roads or establishing new ways.

“The subcommittee is working with the Spring Creek Association, NDOT, and RTC,” Kerr said, adding that it may take some time and money to develop those routes.

“You’re dealing with private property on some [routes] or widening country roads, and everything has a huge cost,” Kerr said.

Risk mitigation

Living in an area surrounded by fuels comes with some risks, especially in rural northeastern Nevada. To reduce the possibility of property loss or worse during wildfire season, the Spring Creek Association is pouring efforts into weed management and fuel reduction.

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Removing non-native vegetation is one step in fire-fighting efforts, according to a fact sheet from the University of Nevada, Reno’s Cooperative Extension that advocates for the use of green strips containing fire retardant vegetation.

In May, the Spring Creek Association board of directors adopted a weed management plan from the Humboldt Watershed Cooperative Weed Management Area. It focuses on coordination, prevention, detection, rapid response and monitoring/maintenance.

The treatment plan includes all SCA properties, amenities, greenbelts and right-of-ways, and involves reintroducing “site appropriate vegetation” once noxious weeds are removed.

“[S]eeds from noxious weeds may lay dormant for many years [and] removing all visible signs of the noxious weeds does not ensure against their return,” the management plan reads. “Revegetation” may also prevent “germination of weed seeds.”

Matt Murphy, Elko fuels program manager for the BLM, said the moisture from last winter and spring has made the landscape look green, but it is still a hazard.

“That green will not last forever,” he said.

Among the fuels prevalent in Spring Creek is dry cheatgrass that is easily ignited. With so many fuels throughout Kittridge Canyon, Osino, Ryndon, South Fork and other places, fire and emergency agencies urge residents to clear brush about 30 to 100 feet away from their structures.

Spring Creek General Manager Jessie Bahr explained that educating the public on maintaining defensible space is one of the priorities of the association.

“No one wants to be held liable if something should accidentally happen to cause a widespread fire and additional damage,” she said.

Most of the fires during the 2018 fire season were human-caused, Bingaman noted, and reducing that risk is something everyone can contribute to.

“You can mitigate quite a bit of damage if you just follow some simple rules the fire department has identified,” Bingaman said.

Murphy emphasized mowing while the brush is green.

“The time to mow is not when the grass is dead and dry, as it heightens the fire risk,” he said.

Being vigilant and aware of fire danger is part of what comes with living in Spring Creek and other areas, said Kerr.

“There are inordinate risks regardless of where you live, whether it is wildland fire, an earthquake, or a flood depending on what you’re willing to risk … to be where you want to be,” Kerr said. “It’s basically quality of life you’re making those decisions [upon].”

Additional resources

In the event of any emergency, the county can alert the public through the use of the Emergency Alert System’s Integrated Public Alert & Warning System, also known as IPAWS.

“The county can alert every cellphone in the area,” Kerr said, explaining that phones are notified if they are within the range of a local cell tower.

It’s not only utilized during fire season but to warn drivers of icy road conditions or other road closures, Bingaman added.

“It’s been helpful with the mines when we’ve had to call them and let them know a road has closed,” she said.

Volunteer fire departments throughout the county cover areas that are not adequately staffed, Bingaman said. A firefighter class this spring added 18 more volunteers to Spring Creek, Ryndon and Lamoille units.

“Volunteers are so critical for our success because we have to help each other,” Bingaman explained. “We have 16 different volunteer fire departments that work in conjunction with us.” She added that Spring Creek has a full-time staff of six with one captain.

Another volunteer group is the Citizens Emergency Response Team or CERT. Organized in 2008 in Elko County, they are prepared to step in during any emergency and fill in as needed.

“The whole basis of the CERT program is to help yourself and help your neighbor. We don’t have enough first responders for every single home or every single area,” Bingaman said. “We rely on volunteers a lot, so the CERT program has been building over the years.”

Every year emergency agencies and first responders participate in mass casualty drills that involve various scenarios including earthquakes and hazardous material spills. They also participate in tabletop or live wildland fire exercises with the BLM.

“We do different exercises,” Kerr said. “We’re required by the state to have them.”

Such exercises sharpen skills, tighten procedures and show what needs improvement, Kerr added.

“We have a great county that works together,” she said. “The goal is to protect life and property.”

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Courts, K-12 schools & Spring Creek reporter

Staff writer for the Elko Daily Free Press

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