From the pages of
Pinedale Roundup
Volume 104, Number 31 - August 2, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Sheriff evaluates fire response

by Jennie Oemig

At a press conference last week, Sublette County Sheriff Bardy Bardin and Undersheriff Jim Whinnery addressed the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office’s (SCSO) efforts and actions taken during the July 12 Pole Creek fire and discussed improvements that can be made in preparation for future emergencies. One thing that was most evident was the need to have a public information officer available to handle excess calls to dispatch. When word got around about the fire burning near Pinedale, dispatch was overrun with calls, Whinnery said.

Most of the calls received were from companies and citizens asking how they could help out and offering a place for evacuees to stay if need be.

Aside from the calls regarding the fire, dispatch was also handling normal everyday calls and communicating with the fire department as well as keeping in touch with officers via the radio.

“Dispatch was inundated with phone and radio traffic,” Whinnery said. During the time the SCSO was dealing with the fire, Bardin said dispatchers received numerous calls, ranging from accidents and routine traffic calls to thefts and property damage.

To help alleviate the calls, the public information officer would have phones set up in the meeting room in the basement of the SCSO building to take calls during emergency situations. People would then be advised to call that number if they had any emergency-related questions or concerns or to offer donations or volunteer to help. The public information officer would also be responsible for giving the media updates and information whenever needed. “A lot of people don’t know the good we do,” Bardin said. “That person would be a PR person.”

After the Pole Creek fires. in which the officers were dispersed at many different locations to assist with evacuations, it was determined that an incident command post would have been helpful with communication efforts had it been feasible. Bardin said due to the speed at which the fire grew, there wasn’t time to get incident command up and running.

“We would have had better communication, but we were cut off by the fire right away,” he said. “That was one of the key things we needed to do, but didn’t have time.”

There was some confusion with deputies during the evacuation as well, Bardin said. One of the officers was allowing people to walk up Fremont Lake Road on foot once they had been evacuated.

Though evacuation procedures were administered to get residents out of harm’s way, Bardin said people had the choice to stay with their houses and personal belongings. “I can’t order a mandatory evacuation … it’s just strongly recommended,” Bardin said, adding that once people leave officers have the statutory right to keep them out. To improve that aspect, Bardin said the SCSO would be better off if it had some kind of documentation identifying those individuals who decided to forego evacuation.

“It would be a way to know who’s still in there once we shut down a road,” he said. Once evacuation efforts began, Bardin said the wind came up again and Carmichael Hills and Orcutt Hills subdivision were evacuated.

“I’d rather evacuate sooner than later,” he said. “At least we knew at that point we had enough time to get everyone out who wanted to get out.”

Bardin said his main service as a law enforcement official is to protect members of the community and put their safety above all else. That was the reason he chose to evacuate the campgrounds and those living near the location of the fire.

“Ultimately, it was going to be my rear end on the chopping block,” he said. “I think we made the right choice.”

Several officers who went ahead to evacuate residents came back to find out the fire had crossed over Fremont Lake Road. “The helicopter crew advised us that we probably needed to evacuate Lakeside,” Whinnery said. “By the time we made all the rounds, the road was pretty much impassable.”

Once the evacuation was under way, people were sent to the high school, where a database was set up to collect names of those who were there. The list allowed family members of those who were evacuated to check on the status of their loved ones. The gas companies played a significant

role in the evacuation efforts as well. Seventy-five cots were brought in, along with food, for those at the high school. Ultra, Questar, Shell and EnCana offered various places for people to go if they did not want to stay at the high school.

All of the county fire departments and crews battling the Salt Lick Fire and Horse Creek Fire were pulled from those areas and sent to help fight the Pole Creek Fire, Whinnery said.

Whinnery also acknowledged the helicopter crew for its assistance in putting out the flames.

“If it hadn’t been for their efforts, it would have been a lot worse,” he said. “ … Whoever that pilot was, he did a good job.” Though the communication efforts were not the best during the Pole Creek fire, Bardin said it was helpful in allowing all the emergency response teams to know what needs to be improved upon for the future. “It was a big learning experience for all of us,” he said.

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