La Crosse County designs evacuation plans for possible train derailment

Plans will be available at local town hall, city hall

If a train hauling crude oil were to come off one of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway rail lines, La Crosse County Emergency Management Coordinator Keith Butler said everyone within 1 mile would need to be evacuated. That’s why Butler and his team created evacuation plans for everyone who could be affected.

Ralph Knudson said when he moved into his home, he wasn’t too concerned about living near the train tracks, but then he heard about the crude oil many of those trains were hauling. Right then, he and his wife started planning their escape route.

“We have a thing of all our important papers, we would grab that, run down, jump in the car and we would drive west, right away,” Knudson said.

Knudson lives less than 200 yards from BNSF Railway’s new double tracks through La Crosse, and according to FEMA, if a derailed train carrying crude oil exploded that’s within the blast zone.

“We have this big fireplace in here, big chimney, and we kind of joke that that’s our blast wall. If we happen to be in the living room, ‘Yeah, that would protect us a little bit.’ Not really, no,” Knudson said.

But Knudson is not the only one living within the danger zone. Butler said anyone within a mile of a derailed train is at risk.

“About one third of the entire population of the county lives within a mile or so of the tracks and that’s what we’re considering the protective distance,” Butler said.

Because there are so many people living so close to the tracks, Butler and his department have used the last seven months to develop evacuation plans for Brice Prairie, Onalaska and northern, southern, and downtown La Crosse, as well as Goose Island.

“We’re going to release the information to each of the communities that have an evacuation plan for them so they can take it, analyze it, see how it fits with their emergency plans and try to get information out to the public,” Butler said.

Knudson said he feels better knowing others will now have an evacuation plan and that the dangers of crude oil are being discussed.

“To me, knowing that we have a public discussion about it is the most important thing,” Knudson said.

Copies of evacuation plans will be available at the town hall of Onalaska for Brice Prairie residents, Onalaska City Hall, La Crosse City Hall and town hall of Shelby. They are expected to be delivered Monday or Tuesday and should be available to the public the following week.

This entire process was made possible through a special grant for the county. Butler said he hopes to do the same thing for the Canadian Pacific rail line next year.