Ashland is re-evaluating its evacuation processes as California’s deadliest wildfire continues to burn outside the ruins of Paradise.
City Administrator Kelly Madding said updating those plans are more important than ever.
“It seems it is very timely that we are going through this process now, given what’s happening in the West with wildfire in particular,” Madding said.
The Camp Fire broke out Nov. 8, all but leveling the town of Paradise and killing 84 as it burned hot and fast through more than 19,000 structures. As of Friday it had burned 153,336 acres and was 95 percent contained.
Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief Mike D’Orazi, police Chief Tighe O’Meara and Public Works Director Paula Brown presented as a team during last week’s City Council study session because during a large-scale emergency, any of them might be needed as a leader, D’Orazi said. The joint-staff lead is one of the changes proposed to the plan.
Brown said in the case of evacuation, everyone would funnel to Siskiyou Boulevard and find a route out of town, but she noted a number of other routes that could connect to exits without backing up Siskiyou Boulevard.
“These are the streets we would continue to push people towards, not just to Siskiyou Boulevard, because obviously that would clog up quickly, just like water pipes. So we will get you safely out of town,” Brown said. “We will use the freeway county roads such as Eagle Mill Road, to also move you in the right direction.”
She said there is not one main route, and that the best route will be dependent on the situation.
Councilor Jackie Bachman said it’s reassuring to have multiple routes after hearing about the clogged evacuation routes in Paradise.
Brown said if Ashland was forced to evacuate, there would be staff members guiding people to safe routes.
“The important thing is that there’s not one way out of town and we will guide you,” Brown said. “Once you get to Siskiyou Boulevard, you will not be alone.”
D’Orazi said Ashland is further ahead than most other communities in evacuation plans and that the situation would not be like Paradise’s if they can help it. However, each situation is unique, he said.
“That fire was on them before they knew it, before they could get the resources there that could possibly help them; and second, three of their four access routes out of town led in the direction of the fire,” D’Orazi said.
He said the evacuation signs will be a big help in Ashland.
“The most important thing you need to remember is that after you determine that an evacuation needs to take place, is getting the message out,” D’Orazi said. “In most of these recent events where we’ve had these tragedies, the notification system was either inadequate or delayed and that’s what we want to avoid.”
The Nixle notification system Ashland uses is key, D’Orazi said. There are 6,000 cellphones, all landlines in town and 2,000 email addresses registered to receive emergency notifications through the system.
D’Orazi said the city has access to the wireless emergency service alert system, used in Amber Alerts, which will ping every mobile device in town with an emergency notification if necessary.
Paradise chose to not send a mass alert out, which in hindsight wasn’t the best decision, D’Orazi said. Butte County officials have said they were afraid of causing panic and clogging traffic on the one main route out of town. But D’Orazi said he would not hesitate to send alerts out for evacuation.
“I would rather swing and miss, then not swing at all,” D’Orazi said.
Madding said the city will perform drills for such events and encourages other organizations such as the Ashland School District, Southern Oregon University and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to participate in the exercises.
She said there’s also been discussion to reach out to Talent and Phoenix to work on a regional plan.
Councilor Dennis Slattery asked whether staff would go door to door to alert people to evacuate.
O’Meara said that in the case of a level three evacuation, there is simply not enough staff, especially if it were in the case of a wildfire which would keep fire staff busy.
He suggests anyone who needs help evacuating to make a connection before an emergency with someone who can help, such as a neighbor.
“We’re going to try to get to everybody that we need to get to, but frankly we can’t be relied upon for that because there aren’t enough police officers and firefighters on duty to go knock on every door that has to evacuate,” O’Meara said.
D’Orazi said evacuating in phases was discussed as a way to keep from backing up Siskiyou Boulevard.
Mayor John Stromberg asked how long that would take to get everyone out in stages, if the fire and wind were extreme.
“That’s one of the things that really went drastically wrong in Paradise and from those peoples’ losses and sufferings, we should be able to take some further measures I would think,” Stromberg said.
D’Orazi said he’s working on answering these questions and re-evaluating all plans while updating the emergency management plan.