Emergency response officials probe the wreckage of a simulated avalanche site during a training exercise in Lemon Creek on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Emergency response officials probe the wreckage of a simulated avalanche site during a training exercise in Lemon Creek on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Simulated disaster strikes — repeatedly — as do rescue efforts during avalanche training exercise

Staged burial of three homes implores multitude of agencies to share specialized response skills

Nadine Haken was a fatal victim, a disruptive bystander and a rescuer — in that order — all within a few hours amidst a wreckage of lumber, fuel barrels, a smashed vehicle and other items strewn in a mass of snow during a large-scale simulated urban avalanche rescue Saturday by multiple local emergency response agencies.

Haken was among a group of U.S. Coast Guard employees initially designated as civilians — either victims caught in the simulated avalanche or random people in the vicinity who “went out there just to kind of create chaos and confuse people,” she said near the end of the six-hour exercise.

More than 50 people participated in the simulation on a vacant industrial lot in Lemon Creek across the street from Costco. With a large snow hill stretching along the length of the lot blocking the exercise from view, most people doing their Saturday shopping likely had little clue about the disaster scenario unfolding a stone’s throw away.

A rescuer examines the simulated wreckage of a house caught in an avalanche during a training exercise Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A rescuer examines the simulated wreckage of a house caught in an avalanche during a training exercise Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

“The scenario is that three homes were hit by an avalanche and they were collapsed by it,” said Peter Flynn, a leader of Capital City Fire/Rescue’s special teams and member of Juneau Mountain Rescue, describing the activities of emergency responders on all sides of him as he stood in the middle of the lot. “So we have house debris, collapsed structures, void spaces where somebody may be able to survive.”

“We’ve got a car here that’s been crushed by the avalanche debris. There’s also hazmat and simulated electrical hazards as well. So we had to simulate shutting off the power and that kind of thing. So it’s just an opportunity for everybody to get together and trained on something that’s very difficult to train on. And see where the gaps are in our preparation and hopefully get better learn from it.”

The vast range of simulated challenges was complicated by an imposing element of cold reality, as temperatures of about 15 degrees and strong breezes created near-zero wind chill conditions. That meant some especially numbing assignments for people like Haken, who spent a stretch of the morning playing a dead person in a crushed vehicle caught by the avalanche.

“I’m really glad I was prepared,” she said. “It was like really, really cold. I didn’t know how long we were going to be buried in the snow so everyone had their full cold winter gear on, balaclavas, and I had hand warmers and I was ready for anything.”

Haken said while she’s done many joint emergency exercises with other agencies as part of her Coast Guard duties, a simulated incident such as Saturday’s avalanche and its scale was a new experience.

“We had no idea what we signed up for,” she said. “We were told ‘You’re going to get buried in the snow. And people are gonna go find us.’”

A search dog bypasses a simulated chemical spill during an avalanche rescue exercise on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A search dog bypasses a simulated chemical spill during an avalanche rescue exercise on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

In addition to successfully feigning death for the rescuers, Haken also was tasked with being rather too lively for their liking as a simulated bystander.

“Some of us went out there just to kind of create chaos and confuse people like, it’s like going to like, I was like, ‘Oh man, I saw this on Juneau Community Collective. Like what’s going on? This is my neighbor’s house.’ You know, just trying to stir up chaos for the first responders and simulate real-world people coming across an incident in Juneau.”

In addition to CCFR, the Coast Guard and Juneau Mountain Rescue, agencies involved in the simulation included the City and Borough of Juneau Emergency Management, Juneau Police Department, and Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search (SEADOGS).

Tom Mattice, CBJ’s emergency programs manager, said it’s been a couple of years since the last simulation involving that range of agencies. But he said it’s important to stage them periodically “to bring the teams together and to work on the things that are really just on the edge of their disciplines.”

“SEADOGS is a wilderness dog rescue team and an avalanche rescue team, but they don’t usually work in debris piles and they don’t work in rubble, they don’t work in car wrecks, they don’t work in hazmat. So same thing with Juneau Mountain Rescue — amazing mountain rescue teams, but not really used to the urban environment. So the idea here was to bring all the agencies together.”

Rescuers line up at arm’s length before starting to probe a snow hill for victims of a simulated avalanche on Saturday in Lemon Creek. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Rescuers line up at arm’s length before starting to probe a snow hill for victims of a simulated avalanche on Saturday in Lemon Creek. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Experts have raised concerns in recent years about an increased risk of large-scale avalanches, landslides and other natural disasters due to extreme weather conditions caused by climate change. Mattice said the possibility of such incidents has been an ongoing local issue for decades.

“The avalanche scenario has always been a big one for Juneau,” he said. “We know we have 60-plus houses and a hotel in an avalanche zone. We know that if a 300-year avalanche crosses Egan Drive that’s 15 feet high and going 57 miles an hour it’s carrying the Breakwater Inn. So we know that someday we’re going to have to deal with this kind of situation.”

Although a real emergency would require a quick response by the involved agencies, setting up a simulated one takes some time, Mattice said.

“(There’s) moving the snow and how do you pretend that a house got cracked?” he said. “So bringing in plywood and building roof structures. We wedged some pallets together, threw some plywood on the top and put a person under there. And when they dig down to it, they can’t just keep digging, right? So they have to free it up to where then the urban search and rescue guys and the fire department can see ‘Oh, that’s a roof.’”

There were also simulated hazards such as electrical lines (requiring a call to the power company to shut off), a leaking diesel tank and other chemicals. While substitute materials were used in some instances — such as colored fabrics representing chemicals — Mattice said the purpose was to ensure people such as the SEADOGS handlers knew how to respond to the various types of hazards, such as determining if the green substance is antifreeze or some other chemical.

“The trick is how can we help utilize the dogs in the best way possible and recognizing that it’s a hazardous materials environment,” he said. “So identifying those hazards, communicating those hazards and then letting the dog handlers do the best they can to work around those hazards identified.”

The controller for a heat-signature drone shows red forms representing people in a simulated avalanche zone during a rescue exercise Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The controller for a heat-signature drone shows red forms representing people in a simulated avalanche zone during a rescue exercise Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

One of the new tools at this year’s exercise was a heat-signature drone from the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities that was put to real-world use last November when searching a large portion of the Mendenhall Valley for a person who was reported missing from an assisted living facility. On Saturday it was used to detect “red” areas underneath the snow that could be living people or animals, which the rescuers then searched using long probes and shovels for after spreading themselves out in an arms-length line on the snow slope.

“Having a drone in the air has allowed us to spot people under the snow or bring rescuers in and pull them out,” Mattice said. “So the idea is to work with all these different teams to cross-train, to understand how to support the other team, what the other team can do to support you and then also just recognizing who all the players are.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

A “victim” of an urban avalanche lies in a lot in the Lemon Creek area where a simulated rescue involving about 50 people from various agencies took place Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A “victim” of an urban avalanche lies in a lot in the Lemon Creek area where a simulated rescue involving about 50 people from various agencies took place Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

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