About a dozen law enforcement agencies coordinated in mutual aid efforts on the day of the Boles Fire in Weed last September. Weed Police Chief Martin Nicholas said the timely response of all involved saved lives.
The call came in alerting authorities to the Boles Fire at 1:35 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 15, 2014.
One minute later the first Weed Police officer was on the scene and six minutes after that he had one neighborhood evacuated, said Weed Chief of Police Martin Nicholas.
The Boles Fire left more than 150 structures destroyed, infrastructure damaged, acres of trees burned, and the city of Weed reeling from its losses.
But as quickly and catastrophically as the fire burned through the city, evacuation efforts were successful and no lives were lost.
“Weed Police officers and mutual aid law enforcement agencies responded within a time period that saved lives,” said Nicholas. “The fire going through our city with no injury or death is attributable to that.”
Evacuations were carried out in more than 10 neighborhoods by law enforcement personnel from at least five agencies during the first hour of what turned into a night long event.
Complicating those efforts was a loss of cell phone service and a power outage that took down radio communications.
Officers went door to door telling people to leave their properties due to the danger of the approaching fire.
“People aren’t accustomed to an officer knocking on their door and telling them to get out,” Nicholas said. “We met some resistance, some disbelief.”
Weed PD Sergeant Justin Mayberry said a lot of people believed they could save their home with a garden hose. “But then the water shut off.”
Law enforcement personnel helped people who asked for or required help, and then moved on, Mayberry said.
Nicholas explained that their job was to notify people of the danger and impress on them the urgency of the situation. Time being of the essence, “once we recognized acknowledgement that the message had been delivered, we went to the next house.”
People on the whole remained calm, Mayberry commented. “I don’t think they actually had time to take in the gravity of the situation.”
The fire in effect bisected the town, racing through the Hillside and Woodridge neighborhoods close to Weed Elementary School and Weed High School.
When the Weed Police dispatch notified the schools at 1:49 p.m. that they should evacuate, those evacuations were already in motion, Mayberry reported.
Students gathered at Son’s Park at the high school and were loaded onto buses and a van.
It was 2:20 p.m., just 45 minutes after the fire had been reported. The fast moving blaze was in the neighborhoods close to the school, had already jumped the Roseburg mill, hit Angel Valley and burned across Highway 97.
For law enforcement officers up by the school, getting the children out safely was the first priority but their choices were limited by the path of the fire, Mayberry reported.
“Our first plan was to take the students to College of the Siskiyous, but by that time we were unsure we’d be able to travel on 97. Carrick Addition evacuations had already begun, so we had to go further,” he said.
The cars of parents trying to find their children on the field caused a traffic logjam near the school for awhile, but the evacuation succeeded.
“The only time I saw emotions of real fright during the evacuations was when parents were looking for their children at Son’s field by the high school,” Nicholas recalls.
A Weed police officer got the gate open to a road down the back side of School Hill. The students were taken around the Roseburg mill and driven all the way to Big Springs School where they were reunited with their families.
“The school evacuation plan was in place with the rally point at Son’s field, and it was carried out. Unfortunately we couldn’t foresee a fire of that size going through and separating our community,” Nicholas said.
An amended evacuation plan now lists several possible points to which students and staff can evacuate, depending on the location and type of incident requiring emergency action.
Nicholas said the schools will notify parents about those potential evacuation locations and, in the event of an emergency, let parents know which location has been chosen.
The Weed PD is also in the process of establishing what Nicholas calls “enhanced communication” between the department and the schools, a change that will include direct radio communication capability.
By the time evening fell on Sept. 15, five city employees had lost their homes, but at one point or another that day every one of those people had been working, Nicholas said.
“By the end of their shifts, they had nothing to go home to, and still they reported to work every day after that,” he said.
Officers responding as part of mutual aid from California Highway Patrol, Fish and Game, US Forest Service, Lake Shastina Police Department, and Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office joined Weed Police in evacuation work and traffic control efforts soon after the Boles Fire began.
“CHP was there within 15 minutes,” Nicholas said.
Officers from those agencies were joined by others from the Yreka, Etna, Mount Shasta, and Redding Police Departments and the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office.
The lack of communication devices was an issue during emergency efforts, but did not hamper interagency cooperation, according to Nicholas.
“We as law enforcement mutual aid agencies responded, reacted, and prevented death and injury. We worked extremely well together as a group,” he said.
Verizon reported that cell phone service had shut down due to over use.
“The freeway was closed at that point and everyone in their cars must have been calling and texting about the fire,” Nicholas said.
He now is looking into a method by which a government agency can get its calls prioritized on the system.
Nicholas said Weed is also in the process of funding a generator for City Hall, where the police department is located.