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Safe Zones vs Evacuation By Roads--There Is A Better Way

by Chuck Sheley (Cave Junction '59) |

The Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, CA, on Nov. 8, 2018, illustrated the need to revamp the thinking regarding the evacuation of communities threatened by wildfire. People trying to leave in advance of the rapidly moving wildfire quickly overwhelmed the road system. Hundreds of vehicles were abandoned in the traffic jams. These vehicles further exasperated the situation by making the road system almost impossible to navigate.

In 2008 $20 million in federal funding was allocated to improve the road out the upper end of Paradise. Regardless of the improvements, moving 20,000 on a road system is not the answer to protect people in the face of advancing wildfire.

Putting thousands of panicked people on the road systems is, in my opinion, a poor judgment call. The less road traffic--the better. Roads need to be kept open for first responders including fire, medical and law enforcement. In many communities, there are hospitals and assisted living facilities that will need these roads for evacuation.

As of this time there are 85 known fatalities as a result of the Camp Fire. Two of these fatalities still remain unidentified.

Early on Dave Nelson (MSO-57) brought up the idea of "safe zones" and "sheltering in place." His thoughts are spot-on and should be at the top of the list for future evacuation planning by our wildfire agencies.

From Dave's email: "A sad fact, regarding the number of fatalities, is that many probably could have been avoided by 'sheltering in place.' Many situations, scary to terrifying, are survivable, not necessarily in your house. I saw a number of areas where you could have probably weathered the flames especially if wet down or had a wet blanket -- or better yet, in their vehicle. For instance, the high school survived and there was mention of the Paradise football team being in the playoffs, so they more than likely have a football field."

Like all problems, evacuation and safety zones present problems. It seems to me that safety zones were/are especially ignored. I know that I am only about 300 yards from the high school athletic fields and parking areas that could shelter a lot of people. Like Paradise, we are vulnerable and have as many egress problems as anyone -- along with most, if not all, of the west side of the Sierra Front. To my knowledge the Nevada City- Grass Valley community does not have any safety zones identified."

As Dave said, safe zones also present problems. Let's explore ways to work out these problems and see if we can't come up with a better way to save lives in the hundreds of communities that are in danger of wildfire.

First in the planning should be the establishment of a community grid system that takes into consideration population density, current road system capacity, and identifies areas that are al- ready safe zones. The more dense the population, the more safe zones that are needed. Parking lots and athletic fields are already in existence in most communities.

After identifying existing safe zones in relation to the population, there will probably be a need to build more of these zones. However, they can be built at a fraction of the expense of improving a road system to meet the evacuation needs of a community. A safe zone does not have to be paved to work.

The biggest problem will be educating the people who live in the communities. The people in Paradise knew they lived in an area where wildfire appears on a regular basis. People are still telling the local newspapers, and about anyone who will listen, that they didn't have the proper warning.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said evacuation orders were issued through 5,227 emails, 21, 25,643 phone calls and 5,445 texts, in addition to social media and the use of loudspeakers. As cellphone service went down, authorities went into neighborhoods with bullhorns to tell people to leave, and that saved some lives. There is a limit as to what can be done. This fire advanced 6.7 miles in the first hour.

On the other hand, I've heard from residents about many cases where the people heard, but ignored the warnings. There is a limit as to what the authorities can do. Somewhere along the line people have to step up and assume responsibility for their actions and how well they are prepared, or not prepared, for a wildfire.

If the safe zone concept is going to work, every individual in the community should have their safe zone identified ahead of time. Like the map you get in your hotel room that shows you your location and the evacuation route in the event of fire, every resident should have that information on their refrigerator door.

The smart people will drive that route several times a year and know the time necessary make the trip. Just like we do in the school system-- practice fire drills ahead of time and have desig- nated assembly areas. If we can do it with the kids, responsible adults should be able to duplicate their efforts.

Safe zones will need management to make sure the parking is done in an efficient and organized manner. We do that at athletic and community events--it can be duplicated here. Go back to the WWII bomb shelters in London--volunteers handled the shelters and the block evacuations. The key is advanced planning and practice.

Communities need to add the safe zone concept to their wildfire evacuation plans. The next Camp Fire is coming soon.