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'Shelter in place' one option not used

As the Grandview families returned to their homes last week after being displaced due to the Wilbur-Ellis chemical fire, area emergency experts began the process of re-evaluating their chemical emergency management procedures.

While all parties involved in the emergency agree that the fire control, and subsequent evacuation of Grandview residents, went smoothly, there may be a need to re-evaluate how chemical emergencies are handled in the Lower Valley.

A few years ago there was a push by the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to promote an emergency plan called "shelter in place."

The reasoning for the shelter in place plans was based on the fact that people could safely stay in their homes in cases of chemical or other disasters if they took certain precautions. In 2003, a number of shelter in place workshops where held throughout the Yakima Valley to instruct citizens in the procedures for sheltering in place.

The premise for sheltering in place is simple. In the event of chemical emergencies, people are instructed to seal their homes using heavy gauge plastic and duct tape. People are instructed to stay put until they are told they can leave safely. That was not the scenario in Grandview last week.

Instead of sheltering in place, a decision was made early on to evacuate the area surrounding the chemical fire. Sheltering in place was not considered a viable option.

The Grandview fire resulted in a decision to evacuate the hundreds of people who lived within the half mile danger zone surrounding the fire site.

There was a concern about the variety of chemicals involved in the fire, some which could have become airborne, said Sunnyside Fire Chief Aaron Markham.

Firemen from throughout Yakima County Fire District #5 offered support to bring the fire under control. In the meantime emergency agencies also had to consider how to best protect the residents in the surrounding area.

The decision to evacuate the citizens was based on a couple of factors. "Because of the unknown type of chemical hazard being faced and because initially we had no air monitoring devices in place, it was thought prudent to evacuate the citizens," explained Markham.

Emergency personnel used the Department of Transportation's guideline for establishing evacuation zones in cases involving multiple chemicals. "The minimum evacuation zone in such cases is a half-mile radius surrounding the hazardous site," Markham explained.

"Had the hazard been more severe, the perimeter would have been extended beyond the half-mile radius," he said.

"We had to assume the worst," Markham said, noting that closing the freeway for several hours, as well as creating road blocks around the community was a part of the emergency plan.

"Our first concern was to keep people as safe as possible," he added.

As the air monitors were put into place and the level of airborne toxins was measured, it was deemed safe to reopen the freeway and highway. Eventually, the air cleared enough for families to return to their homes, and Grandview businesses reopened for business after being closed for nearly two days.

"All in all, I have to say, things went pretty well and we all cooperated well together," said Markham.

But he and his counterparts in the Grandview community are already making plans to review their existing emergency plans.

"We will most likely be hosting more shelter in place workshops in Sunnyside. I expect similar workshops will be held in Grandview as well," he said.

Markham said now is a perfect time to hold such workshops, which would give people an outline to use in the event of a future chemical fire.

"The hazards of chemical fires and chemical releases are fresh in the minds of the residents, so it makes sense to give them a plan they can use in the future," he said.

In the meantime, Markham said the Sunnyside Fire Department will be reviewing its contingency plan. "We want to make sure we know what to do if such an emergency occurs in our community," he said.

. Julia Hart can be contacted at

(509) 837-4500, or you can e-mail her at jhart@eaglenewspapers.com

illustration courtesy of the American Red Cross

Sheltering in place, a plan normally suggested in the event of chemical emergencies, was not used during last week's Grandview chemical fire. More than 180 people were safely evacuated, but that decision has encouraged emergency service agencies to review their disaster plans, say local officials.

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