By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BOZEMAN – The unincorporated Big Sky community is located on Highway 64, the only dead-end highway in the state, and to leave, visitors and residents alike must travel east on Highway 64 and then turn onto Highway 191. Motorists can turn right for West Yellowstone or drive left toward Bozeman. This means options are limited, should the Big Sky community need to get out of the area in a hurry.
In the event of a hazardous situation like a wildfire, earthquake, hazardous waste spill, flood or law enforcement emergency, officials from either Gallatin or Madison counties would step in to facilitate an evacuation of Big Sky. To keep confusion to a minimum, county officials’ efforts would be guided by an evacuation plan that includes notification procedures and route information based upon the hazard.
“No one incident is the same,” said Patrick Lonergan, director of Gallatin County Emergency Management. “[Routes are] very situationally dependent.” Based on the hazard and the conditions, Lonergan said alternative routes could be made using Jack Creek Road, which is a private gated road leading west to Ennis, or through the Yellowstone Club.
Big Sky straddles both Gallatin and Madison counties and is therefore subject to each county’s emergency evacuation plan. Fortunately, emergency personnel from the two counties work closely.
“We do everything jointly up there,” said Dustin Tetrault, the director of Emergency Management for Madison County. “We make sure our plans reflect each other’s plans very closely … so our responders know how each county works.”
In the event of a dangerous situation that makes it unsafe to stay in the area, the counties will follow a two-step plan for evacuation, consisting of a warning of evacuation, followed by an evacuation order.
One form of notification is electronic, via a mass notification system. If lives are at risk, Tetrault says officials would rely on the national Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, which saves time during an emergency by sending mass alerts to cell phones, landlines, weather radios and news outlets.
“Any cell phone in the area [would] get the alert,” Tetrault said. Emergency personnel can target the notification to a specific street, or alert all of Big Sky. Unfortunately, both directors say the system does not reach cell phones that are out of reception.
If time allows, emergency personnel would issue a warning in person, going door to door to spread the news. “The Gallatin County preference is to make contact in person if at all possible,” Lonergan said, adding that this form of communication ensures understanding across the community.
At the time of such an evacuation warning, residents and visitors should prepare to leave at a moment’s notice. Should individuals need time in order to leave, such as those with medical needs or livestock, Gallatin County suggests they leave when the warning is issued instead of waiting for an evacuation order.
Should a dangerous situation escalate, local officials will issue an evacuation order requesting that individuals leave immediately. Often, this notification is made in person. Further details, such as evacuation instructions and route plans, will be made available through the notification process. There could be specific route instructions, or there may even be an escort, Lonergan said.
“To do an evacuation and bring a whole pile of people down the road would have to be a really coordinated effort,” Tetrault said.
There are several steps people can take in order to be prepared for an emergency evacuation.
“The best thing for the community of Big Sky to do is to register with the Gallatin County community notification system,” Lonergan said. This system allows you to list contact information and preferences, as well as select locations you’d like to be notified about, whether it’s your personal home and business, or your home and the home of your children or family members.
The directors also recommend that individuals come up with a personal emergency plan, keep an emergency kit and know what they would do in the event of an evacuation.
“Everyone should be prepared,” Lonergan said. “That can mean different things to different people.” Scenarios to be prepared for include not being able to leave the house, not being able to get home, or having to leave home in an emergency.
In order to be ready for the scenarios, people are encouraged to keep a 72-hour emergency kit that would include water, clothing, matches and other survival gear that can be stored in a car or other convenient location. Personal needs, such as medications and the needs of your animals, should also be taken into account.
“We go by 72 hours because that’s the time it would take to get outside help,” Tetrault said, referring to state or national emergency aid.
Tetrault says the items you take with you during an evacuation are organized into five categories that can be remembered as the five P’s. Importance is placed in the following order: people; prescriptions; papers and documents; personal needs; priceless items.
Another point of consideration is to discuss a family plan, says Lonergan. “Where would you go? Where would you meet your family?” In some instances, an emergency evacuation might require sheltering individuals in a separate part of the county. In other cases, it may be up to the individual to find an alternative location to stay as long as it’s unsafe to return home.
Tetrault suggests that prior to evacuation, individuals try to turn on lights inside and outside the house to increase visibility, disconnect garage door openers so that the doors can be opened by hand, and turn off any gas sources.
To sign up for the Gallatin County Community Notification system, visit readygallatin.com/public-warning/community-notification-system. To learn more about the Gallatin County Emergency Management, visit readygallatin.com, or to learn about the Emergency Management of Madison County, visit madisoncountymt.gov/176.