We can’t imagine being in Paradise, California, in November of last year. The town’s name belies what was a hellish event.
The Camp fire devoured everything in its path, in a region where, even though local authorities had mapped out a full-on disaster plan, many where trapped in their cars in an inferno too big and vicious to escape.
The Camp fire killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 structures, one of the most destructive wildfires in a California history replete with monster fires.
And here is the crushing irony — Paradise had one of the most sophisticated evacuation plans in the state. In some cases, being among the best just won’t matter.
In the era of fake news, it’s refreshing to have organizations like the Associated Press and USA Today on the job. The AP and USA Today staff have done a bang-up job of analyzing wildfire dangers, specifically for California and its residents. In their latest reports, the news agencies tell of finding glaring holes in this state’s overall preparation for the next big, inevitable wildfire.
The findings are truly frightening. The USA Today study of Cal Fire's data indicates that 95 percent or more of residents living in the state’s 15 most heavily-populated areas are in very high-hazard areas for wildfires.
It was also revealed that less than one-quarter of communities in high-risk areas offer detailed evacuation plans available for public inspection.
It’s as though a lot of people simply don’t care about the risks, and naively believe they could handle a quick getaway from a wildfire. For those folks, here’s a fact — as the Painted Cave fire raced down from San Marcos Pass in the early 1990s, it was burning more than an acre a minute, destroying virtually everything in its path. Something to think about.
A Paradise town official put it best: “Have a plan, an evacuation plan. You’re going to have tragedy if you don’t have a plan.”
Apply such facts to our situation here in Santa Barbara County. True, this region is not as heavily forested as Northern California, but imagine if a major fire — like the Thomas fire — bore down on the South Coast, and 150,000 or more residents jumped in their cars and hit Highway 101. Whichever direction they chose would be clogged, traffic would be at a standstill, and if a fire pushed by powerful Sundowner winds leap-frogged across the highway, many people would not make it.
There are evacuation routes throughout the county, but it is evident that far too many local residents live in places where there are very limited choices when it comes to a safe escape route.
Some officials around the state aren’t being very helpful. When USA Today reporters contacted community leaders and emergency managers, some claimed they have an evacuation plan but refused to make them available. Several officials say making the information public could compromise law enforcement efforts during a disaster.
We know some folks consider the media to be their enemy, but in the case of preparing for any or all of California’s potential emergency situations, stonewalling the media is not a smart move.
The best advice we have for ordinary, taxpaying citizens is to create an evacuation strategy of your own, then rehearse routes, details and meeting spots with your family and loved ones.
And be ready to move on a moment’s notice. If the fire is big, don’t wait to see where it’s going. Get your survival kit and family members in the car and get out.