Terry Lamphier: Fire evacuation — light of fantasy?
“You’ve heard me say this before: Every acre can and will burn someday in this state” — Cal Fire Director Thom Porter.
Despite what we are learning about the often futile efforts to protect houses in the woods from fire destruction, housing developments continue to be built unrestrained in the Sierra foothills.
The debate has now entered the national arena (“housing should no longer be built in woodsy fire zones” — Ilan Kelman, Washington Post).
The World Meteorological Organization notes that worsening weather disaster impacts are compounded by more people moving into dangerous areas. A recent U.S. Forest Service report on the Angora (Tahoe Basin) Fire noted that in some cases trees caught fire from burning houses ignited by embers.
Government leadership throughout the foothills continues to fail to show leadership on this issue, instead continually placing private sector interests over public safety. Calls for constraint continue to go unheeded. Indeed, private citizens lobbied Butte County supervisors for years against developer-friendly growth policies prior to the tragic Paradise Fire.
No one will propose bulldozing houses and restoring healthy forests, so where do we go from here?
Aside from electing local leadership that places public community safety over private development rights (elections are coming soon!), one issue still controllable by government agencies is evacuation planning and management. It has become painfully obvious that gridlocked traffic is no match for a fire advancing under 20- to 40-mile an hour winds, but with Paradise being the exception, so far fire and police agencies have managed to largely pre-empt tragic loss of life.
As more and larger fires continue to increase evacuation challenges, much has been done to improve procedures, but much more needs to be done. For example:
— Nevada County’s numbered evacuation system can work for police and firefighters, but its “unintelligible code” (The Union’s Editorial Board) is way too confusing for many residents. Warnings need to be tied to familiar streets and landmarks.
— Reporting existing and predictive wind directions, speeds and likely direction changes could greatly enhance private citizen evacuation planning efforts, especially those whose special needs require more time.
— Local radio seems to be a mixed experience on reporting. Some training on emergency reporting to make it crisper and tighter (some confusion is unavoidable), while regular updates can greatly enhance citizen planning, reduce confusion and reassure anxious listeners.
— Local police and fire agencies need to look at traffic control. While they do a good job of evacuating those at immediate risk, it appears that once you hit the road, you are on your own for getting out of danger. In recent Grass Valley fires, streets very near evacuation areas were choked with traffic with no public safety personnel guidance. A Georgetown firefighter (summoned under mutual aid pacts) told me at last year’s Loma Rica fire that they were delayed by traffic blocking access and drivers refusing to yield even with sirens and lights blazing.
To their credit, some local leaders understand evacuation problems. Alta Sierra’s Don Besse noted problems after the River Fire with traffic accidents, incorrect information on evacuation areas and — “again” — had non-emergency phone calls overload emergency communications to the point that the system crashed.
Nevada County Supervisor Ed Scofield, commenting on a small fire prior to the River Fire, said that after a Code Red alert was issued, “There was confusion in that first responders are not immediately available for direction … certain roads were closed, and … emergency gates not opened.”
Our local environmental group Sierra Watch’s 10-year suit against Squaw Valley’s massive “Disneyland development” proposal won a California appeals court support for issues around Placer County government’s weak environmental impact report, particularly regarding evacuation issues. As Executive Director Tom Mooers put it, “The development proposal is not only irresponsible, but approvals of the project (by government) were illegal.”
A previous judge had noted that fire evacuation on Squaw’s single-access road could take more than 10 hours but had approved the plan regardless. The appeals court noted that evacuation planning was “highly unrealistic” because “available public safety personnel would be tasked with much higher priority tasks and even then, the numbers of public safety personnel would likely be inadequate.”
Our past state attorney general, Xavier Becerra, supported lawsuits against some massive developments proposed for fire-endangered areas in Southern California.
The dice keep rolling for Nevada County. We can, and must, do better.
Terry Lamphier lives in Grass Valley.
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