Marshall Fire may weigh on emergency planning for Arapahoe County

Alerting public to dangers remains a challenge, Arapahoe emergency director says

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It’s difficult to say what lessons Arapahoe County may take away from the Marshall Fire so far, when details are still emerging, said Nathan Fogg, Arapahoe County’s emergency manager.

“But public alert warning is always something that’s difficult,” Fogg said, referring to the systems that sends alerts to cellphones in emergencies.

Some residents during the Marshall Fire in Boulder County say they received little notice — or no notice at all — to flee their homes in the face of an inferno that became Colorado’s most destructive wildfire in terms of the number of homes destroyed. The Dec. 30 fire led to one confirmed death and another person still unaccounted for.

Many people don’t know that they can only receive alerts for certain emergencies if they’ve signed up for a free notification service.

“Right now, the best option we have is to increase our opt-in rates” for how many people sign up, Fogg said. Across Colorado, rates of opting into the local systems are typically low, he added.

There is an alert system that the public doesn’t have to sign up for: the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS, which is operated under FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It’s a system that includes wireless emergency alerts, which most people know as the AMBER Alerts they receive on their phones about abducted children, Fogg said.

The system can send messages to an area based on location, including through mobile phones. But it’s not perfect, and it comes with some problems that can complicate the response to an emergency.

There are three versions of wireless emergency alert technology: 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0, according to Fogg. How old someone’s cellphone is determines how “intelligent” a phone is, meaning what version of alert it can receive. The 3.0 alerts can be received by newer cellphones.

“WEA 3.0 (devices) are newer-generation phones that can use GPS to determine within (one-10th of a) mile if the phone is inside the alerted area,” Fogg said. If it is, then it gets the alert.

WEA 1.0 and 2.0 phones, on the other hand, get the alerts if they are connected to a cell tower close to the alerting area. “Close” is defined differently by different cell carriers — it could be 5 miles or up to 15 miles, for example, Fogg said.

And when sending an IPAWS alert, the three different technology versions are not something the alerting agencies can select from, Fogg said.

WEA 1.0 is the original system and has a 90-character limit, according to Fogg. Emergency agencies using IPAWS have to, at a minimum, complete the 90-character message. All cellular phones can receive those messages regardless of their WEA version support, Fogg said.

“Until all the older phones … are (phased out) and replaced by WEA 3.0-capable phones, bleed over and wide-scale unintended alerting is a known outcome” of using the system, Fogg said.

One example of that problem was when residents outside of Englewood received a boil-water alert in August due to potential contamination in Englewood, Fogg noted.

“So there’s caution to be used with those wireless emergency alerts through IPAWS because in an evacuation scenario, you don’t want to overload your roadways with people who don’t need to evacuate,” Fogg said.

For those reasons, local officials urge the public to opt into their local alert systems. Visit tinyurl.com/ColoradoAlertSystems to find information on the emergency notification system in your area. The public should note that the City of Aurora’s system is separate from the system for the rest of Arapahoe County.

To improve preparedness for disasters, Arapahoe County maintains a Hazard Mitigation Plan, the recent version of which is dated January 2021. The plan notes that the county is “vulnerable to a wide range of natural and human-caused hazards, such as flooding, severe storms, wildfire” and other hazards. It’s not yet clear whether the record-setting damage in the Marshall Fire will prompt changes to the county’s plan.

“The Marshall Fire, I think, is causing everyone to make sure their planning processes are up to date,” Fogg said. “The magnitude of that, we’ve never seen it before. It’ll definitely be a consideration in our review cycle this year.”

The process for potentially making changes to the plan takes place annually, Fogg said. He noted that the plan is “aspirational rather than binding,” meaning the proposed strategies are not required to be completed. The 2022 review date for the plan is not yet certain, with an expected time frame in April or May, according to Fogg.

According to the 2021 plan, one of the “2020 Hazard Mitigation Actions” for Arapahoe County was “Subdivision Design/Setback requirements in Wildland Urban Interface.”

Fire officials use the term “wildland urban interface” to refer to areas where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or plant life that can fuel fires. A “setback” is the minimum required distance between a building and a property-lot line, waterway or road. Subdivisions are pieces of land divided up, often for an area of housing.

That part of the county’s plan suggested requiring “larger setbacks or non-flammable walls or stone setbacks around new subdivisions that are developed in the high-risk Wildland Urban Interface (to) avoid property damage.”

The timeline is listed as “TBD,” or to be determined, and Fogg deferred to the Arapahoe County Planning Department for information on that item.

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