PRINEVILLE — For Central and Eastern Oregon’s public agencies, the August eclipse presents a unique logistical challenge, as a once-in-a-generation event expected to bring an enormous but uncertain number of people to the region.
A massive interagency simulation event, held Friday in Prineville, is an early step toward imagining what can go wrong during the late summer weekend, and determining how best to respond to any eventuality.
“It’s practicing your fire drill when you don’t have a fire, so you don’t have to think about which exit to use,” said Lisa Clark, public affairs officer for the Bureau of Land Management’s Prineville office.
Alex Robertson, Fire and aviation staff officer for Central Oregon Fire Management Service, said the interagency association has held simulations for the past six years, mainly based on problems from previous fire seasons or possible problems during the upcoming season. This year, given the number of agencies that will be dealing with more visitors from the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, Robertson said they decided to expand the scope of the simulation.
“The eclipse is just one incident during a time frame when we might have a whole bunch of other incidents,” Robertson said.
Still, it’s one that’s going to require the full focus of the region’s public agencies. Michael Ryan, emergency manager for the Crook County Sheriff’s Office, said he expects there to be at least 400,000 people staying overnight in Central Oregon that weekend, plus however many visitors come from other states and other regions of Oregon without formal reservations.
“It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that we could see six, seven hundred thousand people,” Ryan said.
Shelley Hall, superintendent of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, added that she is expecting up to 50,000 people across the national monument’s three units in Eastern Oregon.
“If we get even 25,000 in a three- or four-day period, that’s going to be a substantial stress on our operations and our staff,” Hall said.
While different agencies have different concerns, the eclipse stands to affect the entire region. Because of that, Friday’s event brought 85 employees from more than a dozen public agencies from Deschutes, Jefferson, Crook, Grant and Wheeler counties to the Eastside Church in Prineville. During the all-day event, assembled staff explained their concerns, which ranged from the ever-present risk of a wildfire on public land to making sure they’re communicating effectively with visitors from different countries, according to Clark.
“I don’t think we have the capacity to handle messaging in 26 languages,” she said.
From there, officials from various departments were presented with specific scenarios that could conceivably occur during the weekend prior to the eclipse and were asked by a moderator to come up with a response. For example, the first hypothetical scenario involved a hiker stranded on Mt. Jefferson during the weekend of the eclipse. Bill Dean, district manager of the BLM office in Prineville, said staffers from agencies affected by the scenario would start tossing out ideas for how they would respond, who they would coordinate with, and how those agencies have worked together in the past.
“This is the first time we’ve all been under one roof, running through scenarios,” Dean said.
Clark added that different agencies talked about “pre-staging” equipment near possible impact areas, to avoid trying to haul them in from a district office to speed up response times.
Other scenarios slated for later in the day included a car crash in a crowded area, a serious medical incident and a wildland fire, according to Robertson.
While a simulation cannot completely capture the experience of responding to an event, Robertson said the eclipse preparations would not be that different from the standard interagency response to a wildfire, albeit on a different scale.
“Interagency cooperation in Central Oregon has always been really good,” he said. “We’re just looking at the eclipse as another chance to practice.”
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