For nearly two decades, the Sultan School District has collaborated with multiple agencies to perform an annual emergency preparedness drill, marching its entire student population up the city’s evacuation trail. The drill is meant to simulate what would happen in the event of breach at the Culmback Dam.
The 2017 event, coordinated by the school district, the city, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and Snohomish County Fire District 5, took place on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. Located roughly 16 miles north of downtown Sultan in the Sultan River Basin, Culmback Dam and its reservoir, Spada Lake, are part of the Jackson Hydroelectric Project, operated by the Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD). Spada Lake provides about 80 percent of the drinking water for Snohomish County and 5 percent of the PUD’s annual electricity needs.
The evacuation drill sprang to life many years ago, based on community concerns about what would happen in the event of a dam breach, said Snohomish County Fire District 5 Chief Merlin Halverson.
“We believe that the most important thing we can do is get the children out of town if we have a dam failure, so that’s what it’s all about,” Halverson said.
The drill is not only meant to ensure the safety of the community’s youth, but also serves as a proactive measure aimed at lowering flood insurance rates for Sultan community members.
According to the PUD, two separate scenarios have been modeled to determine how long it would take the water to reach the city, in the event of a catastrophic failure at the dam. In sunny conditions, it would take an estimated 1 hour and 12 minutes before the leading edge of water arrived at the end of Trout Farm Road, which is located northwest of the city’s downtown core.
The flood peak, in sunny conditions, would arrive after an estimated two hours and 18 minutes.
In a flood condition, it would take an estimated 54 minutes for the leading edge of water to arrive at Trout Farm Road. The flood peak would hit the city after roughly 1 hour and 54 minutes. The modeling was specifically conducted to predict what would happen in the event of a full dam breach.
Back when the discussion first initiated, they began to look for the most feasible way to get the students to higher ground, said Halverson, which is how the city’s evacuation trail came into existence. Located east of Sultan High School at the northern terminus of 8th Street, the evacuation trail winds up the hillside and ends up in the Eagle Ridge neighborhood.
The city worked with a developer to secure the land donation, and then worked with Cadman to obtain donated rock to create the pathway. It was a collaborative effort, explained Halverson, with city staff performing much of the trail construction. Over the years, the wide, easy-to-navigate walkway has been repaired and maintained by the city.
Each year, first responders time the evacuation event and hold a debrief once the drill is over, to look for areas in need of improvement.
“We’ve been able to do it in about 20 minutes from start to finish,” Halverson said. “I think our best is 18 minutes.”
During last Wednesday’s drill, Sultan High School leadership students were positioned at seven stations along the trail, each within voice and sight range of the next. Three District 5 aid cars were positioned; one at the bottom of the trail, another at about three-quarters of the way up the trail, and one more at the top. There was also a water-station that greeted the kids as they crested the trail and arrived in the Eagle Ridge cul-de-sac.
This year’s time lagged a little in comparison to last year, with all the students reaching the top of the trail in about 36 minutes from start to finish.
“The bottom line is we got all the kids up the hill in less than 45 minutes,” said Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick. “That’s the goal.”
Each year, the agencies work together to come up with ways to improve and enhance the process. This year, in an effort to incorporate a more realistic approach, all three schools were released at the same time. For next year, plans are already underway to incorporate the Volunteers of America Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) students, who will be included in the drill.