Wildfire-prone California towns often low on escape routes
PARADISE, California (AP) — Californians got a deadly wakeup call when more than 27,000 Paradise residents trying to escape the Camp Fire got caught in a nightmare traffic jam. The 2018 catastrophe illuminated the grim reality that road systems throughout the state are not designed to handle a sudden evacuation.
A new USA TODAY Network-California analysis reveals the extent to which a fundamental problem in Paradise — too few escape lanes for too many people in vehicles — applies to other cities and neighborhoods at great risk of wildfire across the state.
About 350,000 Californians live in areas that have both the highest wildfire risk designation, and either the same number or fewer exit routes per person as Paradise. From the mountains, lakes and forests of northern California, to the San Diego suburbs, some residents in the most fire-prone areas have far fewer evacuation routes than the vast majority of the state.
The ratio of people to exit routes doesn’t account for all the complexities of an actual evacuation, experts say, but it does serve as a shorthand for evaluating evacuation efficacy.
In the Gold Rush town of Sonora, about three and half hours southeast of the town wasted by the Camp Fire, Karl Rodefer thinks about Paradise. He worries more as the next dry season approaches.
“If that happens here, we’re going to have the same kinds of issues,” said Rodefer, a Tuolumne County supervisor. “There’s a lot of anxiety in the foothills now because of the Camp Fire.”
Both Sonora and Paradise are isolated communities with few roads leading into and out of town.
In Los Angeles County, an area already known for gridlock, the city of Glendale straddles the Verdugo Mountains with neighborhoods, schools, and hiking trails carved into its base. The city’s 2008 emergency plan identified them as potential brush fire zones.
The roads can be narrow and some communities have only one way in and out. The plan notes that these conditions could make evacuation and emergency response difficult, but years of construction and development have made any kind of road widening “physically impossible” in those areas, city spokesman Dan Bell said.
The city’s police and fire agencies have conducted outreach in these communities and are strict about defensible space around homes. There’s also a new, targeted alert system.
“I think the only concern is people not evacuating when we ask them to evacuate,” he said.
Plus, Bell said, the area hasn’t seen a major wildfire in some time.
But it’s the big one that worries Glendale resident James Ward, 62. For 32 years he’s lived in Chevy Chase Canyon, a community of 1,600 homes in a cleft of the San Rafael Hills, which the city has also identified as a potential brush fire zone.
There are only two-lane roads that run through the canyon, with a single access point for many streets and only a few main arteries that let people out. But some neighbors don’t know all the ways out, Ward said.
“If 80% or 60% of the people thought the only way was Chevy Chase (Drive) and all the emergency vehicles were coming up, yes that’s gonna be an issue,” Ward said.
Evacuation routes came up at an annual community meeting in March with the police and fire departments because residents saw the tragedy in Paradise and had the same fears, Ward said. The co-president of the Chevy Chase Estates Association said the public safety officials acknowledged their fears but “their message was: be aware of your surroundings and if we ask you to leave, leave.”
California officially adopted fire code standards for roads in the 1990s, although they had been used in some areas for decades before that. They set rules for things like grades, road surfaces, passing areas, signage on dead-ends and “critical” secondary access to any subdivision, said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director with Cal Fire’s office of the state fire marshal.
But most of the road systems California communities like Glendale rely on were built before the widespread use of the standards.
There are also building codes that regulate room capacity and emergency exits, said wildfire evacuations expert Tom Cova. The same consideration should be applied to road infrastructure in communities, he said.
“We’re gonna see a lot of bad things happen I think … before we do something for communities that we did for buildings,” said Cova, director of the University of Utah’s Center for Natural and Technological Hazards.
Still, Cova and other experts see road capacity as just one element of a healthy evacuation system. Timely evacuation orders, residents’ willingness to obey them, traffic pinch points at intersections beyond the community and many other factors can also be a matter of life and death.
And road capacities can be sufficient, Cova said, if evacuations are gradual or limited. It’s when everyone tries to leave at once that escape routes are quickly overwhelmed.
‘THERE WERE JUST SO MANY PEOPLE’
Malibu transplant Kassidy Jones, 40, said that’s exactly what happened when he and his family fled their home in the city’s Corral Canyon neighborhood the morning of Nov. 9. As the Woolsey Fire bore down, they packed two cars full of belongings and drove south down the windy, two-lane road to scenic Pacific Coast Highway. At the bottom of the canyon, they found bumper-to-bumper traffic.
“I don’t think there’s really another way out, especially because the fire was coming down the mountain,” Jones said. “There were just so many people. PCH can’t handle it.”
Work brought the Texas native to Los Angeles, but he never liked the city much. That’s why he moved his family to the remote neighborhood where his backyard met the sprawling canyon and gave him a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean.
Now there he was stuck in traffic. He couldn’t go north. The flames were coming from that direction — just like in previous fires. Plus, north of Jones, the canyon road eventually empties into a network of hiking trails.
At the bottom of the canyon, it took 20 minutes to even turn onto the highway, Jones said. He parked one of the vehicles along PCH and planned to leave it there, figuring the fire wouldn’t spread that far. There, Jones rejoined his wife and their children, ages 6 and 8.
The kids became restless as the family’s car crept along the highway for two hours to go just two miles. Finally, they stopped at a park to stretch their legs, go to the bathroom and have some snacks.
They watched as the towering smoke plume from the Woolsey Fire changed direction.
“Before it was flowing west then it went south. Our neighborhood was on the western edge of where the fire went. Unfortunately, it got our house,” Jones said.
WHERE DRIVERS COULD OVERWHELM EVACUATION ROUTES
For others like Jones, who choose to live in places prone to fire, whether in remote parts of rural California or in the “urban-wildland interface” that buffers California’s rugged wilderness and dense cities, a similar situation could await.
A USA TODAY Network-California analysis of populations, fire risk zones and roadways shows roughly one out of every 100 ZIP codes in California has a population-to-evacuation-route ratio that is near to or worse than that of Paradise and its neighbor Magalia.
Near the top of the list is South Lake Tahoe, a city west of the California-Nevada state line where vacationers come to camp along the lake that straddles both places. The town is relatively isolated, with only a few thoroughfares to facilitate emergency access for firefighting resources.
There, the number of people living in the “very high fire hazard safety zone” per roadway lanes out is almost three times the number for Paradise.
Interim South Lake Tahoe Fire Department Battalion Chief Jim Drennan said he wasn’t surprised to find out his community is in one of the most precarious fire evacuation locations in the state , given the small number of roads in and out of the Tahoe Basin.
Drennan said since Paradise burned, he hears the same question from people on a nearly daily basis: What are they going to do if a major fire breaks out? Evacuation plans fall primarily to police, he said, but his fire department is one of several agencies trying to plan for what feels like a looming threat. His fire department and other public safety agencies in the area are “on super high alert,” he said.
“The mindset here is: There’s no earthly way you’re moving the entire vacation population out of the basin all at once,” Drennan said. “If you have just one quirk, you’re going to end up with a lot of people stuck on the roads.”
The previous fire chief there wrote in a 2018 op-ed that it’s not a question of “if” but “when” a major fire will hit the area, and he pointed out the limited evacuation routes as a major concern.
Police, fire and city officials will hold a public meeting April 25, specifically to discuss fire preparedness and evacuation planning, partly in response to the anxiety many have expressed to him and others, Drennan said.
The Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles County, densely populated with some of the costliest real estate in the United States, has even more people and fewer lanes leading out, putting it at more than five times the population-to-lane ratio as Paradise.
The western-facing edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range is full of areas with a low number of evacuation routes for the populations there. Places like Foresthill in Placer County, which has a worse population-to-lane ratio than Paradise, and Nevada City in Nevada County, and Sonora in Tuolumne County, are far worse than average.
The analysis identified some places in California where fires have already combined with jammed roadways, killing drivers attempting to flee. Paradise and its neighbor Magalia were among the areas identified as a populous area with limited routes out, and 2018’s Camp Fire proved the point. There, city and county officials had planned on having motorists evacuate using five two-lane roads and one four-lane road leading out of town. But fire forced officials to close three of those routes, further clogging the remaining roads, Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said.
The Cedar Fire, which burned 273,000 acres across the hills of northeastern San Diego in 2003, claimed 10 people trying to flee the blaze in their cars. The fire lashed the densely populated Scripps Ranch area, which has a limited number of roadways that lead to less fire-prone areas.
Many Californians clearly understand the risks. They’ve lived through wildfire evacuations, or have watched others. But that’s not enough to pry them from the places they love.
Greg Meneshian, 53, is one. He’s rebuilding the Bell Canyon home destroyed last year by the Woolsey Fire.
Meneshian moved to the gated, equestrian-oriented community just west of the bustling San Fernando Valley about five years ago. The sense of community he felt the night he evacuated, he said, is just more reason for him and his two daughters, 10 and 12, to stay.
There’s only one access point for the neighborhood of 750.
Looking northwest from his driveway on the night of Nov. 8 he could see flames in the canyon. He and his neighbors met on the street in front of his home trying to figure out what they should do, Meneshian said.
“They were looking to me for answers as if I lived through this before,” Meneshian said. But he was in disbelief.
He woke up the girls and told them to pack a bag for a week. The power had been flickering on and off, and Meneshian knew that meant it was time to go.
Unlike Jones, whose wife had gotten an evacuation alert, Meneshian left before anyone told him to.
It was dark and smoky with nothing but the pockets of fire visible in the canyon, Meneshian said. Vehicles raced down his hilly street.
“It was really a scramble for our lives,” Meneshian said.
He’d find out the next day his home was destroyed.
But the self-proclaimed “nostalgic guy” likes the sense of togetherness in Bell Canyon, where the closest store is 30 minutes away so sometimes borrowing from a neighbor is usually the better bet.
The limited escape routes, he thinks, are just something to be aware of: “It’s probably a deterrent for some people (moving) in,” he said. “But it shouldn’t be.”
‘YOU HAVE TO MAKE THESE INVESTMENTS’
Before Paradise burned, there were already signs of problems with evacuation routes during major wildfires, said Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, whose district includes Glendale.
The 2017 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, which killed 22 people and destroyed more than 5,600 structures, raised alarms.
Afterward, Friedman and her staff talked with academics about the lessons learned, and she introduced Assembly Bill 2911, which then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in 2018. Among other things, AB 2911 requires that subdivisions with only one exit route, located in very high hazard zones for wildfire, undergo an assessment. The bill calls for developing safety recommendations.
State fire officials should begin the surveys around July 1, 2021, and continue every five years after.
Friedman’s bill is likely to have an impact back in her district. In Glendale’s 2008 emergency plan, bold, capitalized letters call attention to the Oakmont Woods and Whiting Woods communities and their single access roads. Both are within the state’s very high hazard zone.
“Any city that has those conditions could benefit and certainly it could be a legislative wake-up call to not only identify these areas but (to signal that) you have to make these investments to make the cities safer,” Friedman said.
Friedman hopes for more state funding for the assessments. She sees reason for optimism in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s declaration of a state of emergency ahead of the traditional wildfire season.
While there’s no unified approach to dealing with California’s wildfire evacuation problem, Friedman’s bill calling for assessments to begin two years from now is not the only potential improvement underway.
In March, Newsom fast-tracked 35 priority projects to remove years of dry, built-up vegetation and create fuel breaks for emergency routes. Those follow an effort by Caltrans since 2016 to remove dead and dying trees from state roadways.
MORE THAN JUST LANES
Cova, the wildfire evacuations expert, said 25 years ago he became preoccupied with the idea that road congestion was the problem. But through his research he also learned it’s more complicated.
The direction the roads let out is also important. In most fire-prone areas officials know what historically contributes to large wildfires, such as Santa Ana or Diablo winds, and can plan to build roads in a direction those gusts are unlikely to push the fire, Cova said.
During an emergency, Cova said traffic routing and control makes a big difference. That can be especially important at the points where evacuation routes hit other roads. The Malibu example, where so many roads empty onto PCH, is apt.
The road issues are important because so many other human factors may decrease the amount of time people have to evacuate, he said.
“What really causes the problem is when you have too many people leaving in too little a time,” Cova said.
It can take officials a while to order evacuations. And residents often hesitate, contemplating whether they should leave, then take time packing.
Back in Malibu, Jones’ wife got an evacuation alert on her phone at 6 a.m. Sheriff’s officials came around on a loudspeaker at 7 a.m. It was around 8 a.m. when Jones actually left.
To speed things up, Cova encourages residents to have a go bag with medications, important paperwork, photographs and other irreplaceable items. And they should have a plan to round up pets, since critical time can be lost chasing dogs and locating cats.
“Being prepared to leave at a moment’s notice is a good idea,” Cova said.
Damon Arthur of the Redding Record Searchlight contributed to this report.