Sonoma County takes a second look at evacuation plans
Many lessons learned but physical constraints still apply
By Jay Gamel
The people charged with Sonoma County’s public safety have acquired a vast amount of hands-on experience in the last four years, experience that has led to the development of extensive plans for how to deal with future disasters: fires, floods, earthquakes, and more. Evacuating people in any number is always a wrenching, difficult exercise for all concerned; so much so that a complete addendum to the emergency playbook was created and discussed by the county supervisors on Aug. 17.
Called the Evacuation Annex, the comprehensive plans are a separate addendum to the overall emergency preparedness plans and procedures used by the Department of Emergency Management and Sheriff ’s Office. Though they are independent, the two agencies work very closely in declared emergencies, even more so now that working procedures have been hammered out by experienced personnel and training put into place.
One thing to know about the county’s emergency structure: Almost all county employees are on call to staff various departments and task forces. A planner might be working on a septic permit one day and staffing an emergency crew for public works the next.
“Large scale evacuations of the community — whether planned or no-notice — must balance restricting the rights of residents, business owners, and the agriculture community with the interest of public safety.” According to the Annex document.
While Russian River flooding has provided practical lessons in evacuation for a hundred years, the advent of extreme wildfires in 2017 has expanded the role of evacuations tremendously. In 2017, the Tubbs and Nuns fires resulted in 100,000 evacuations. Flooding in 2019 rousted 4,500 people from their homes and businesses. The Kincade Fire turned out 186,000 people in October 2019, and the fires of August and September 2020 displaced 81,000.
Evacuation planning ramped up after 2017’s overwhelming and rapid destruction. There are seven stages leading to a full evacuation, defined by increasing immediacy of action. It starts with soft closures, limiting access to residents and emergency agencies and gradually intensifying until a complete evacuation order is issued, which lawfully orders people to leave and closes off the declared area.
One thing that will be considered by those making the decisions: “It is better to err on the side of evacuations,” according to the presentation materials.
Under evacuation orders, law enforcement may not use force to remove persons who choose to remain on private property within the evacuation zone, according to the Annex. Instead, officers will “state clearly that failure to evacuate may result in physical injury or death, that a future opportunity to evacuate may not exist, and rescue resources may not be available. Signed waivers, along with next-of-kin notification information, may be obtained from anyone refusing to heed evacuation orders.”
There are detailed plans for protecting private property that has been left behind. “Residents are more likely to evacuate, and more likely to quickly comply with future evacuation orders, if they feel their property will be safe,” the Annex states. Communication is critical to conducting orderly evacuations. Tools range from audibly different European-style sirens (hi/lo), SoCo Alerts, Wireless Emergency Alerting (WEA), Emergency Alerting System (EAS), NOAA weather radios, and the sheriff’s department Nixle alerts, likely the most commonly used by most citizens.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the evacuation planning system is the awkward designations for evacuation zones. Kenwood’s zones are SON-6A1, running sequentially down Highway 12 to Glen Ellen’s SON-6A5 (see map). In many instances, major roadways (Warm Springs Road, Adobe Canyon Road) demarcate zones, with the odd result that one side of a street can be under evacuation orders while the other isn’t.
Shelter plays a large role in the evacuation contingency planning, with several county facilities already designated as at least temporary shelters for people with no place to go. Temporary Evacuation Points (TEPs) will be set up and county buses and other transportation will be deployed to help move people who rely on public transportation.
Congregate care facilities and long-term care and group homes have special rules and must have evacuation plans on file. Hospitals, jails, juvenile detention centers, schools, and other areas where people congregate must have contingency plans for emergencies.
There are even plans for evacuating events in progress, such as a major event at Sonoma Raceway, or during harvest season.
Which way do you go? Evacuation routes will be selected by law enforcement officials, approved by the incident commander at the time of the evacuation decision, then communicated to the emergency operations center, and finally to the people who must evacuate.
As anyone living in Sonoma Valley quickly learns, there aren’t many options for leaving; Highway 12 is the major route through the valley, and east-west roads are narrow and difficult even on good days, at least in the central and northern parts of the valley. The 2020 Glass Fire saw traffic jammed at the northern exit near Oakmont as fire marched quickly down the mountain from the east and jumped the highway at the bottleneck between Oakmont Drive and Los Alamos Road. That may be a reason to evacuate the valley sooner than might be absolutely necessary, to prevent clogged traffic. The final decision to evacuate any area will be made by the county sheriff, the director of emergency operations, the Sonoma County administrator or any of their designees. Each person, family, and business needs to think ahead about how to manage evacuating their homes and business, depending on where they are when the order comes down. Usually, there will be a sufficient interval between learning of potential problems and an evacuation order, so take advantage of that.
Most importantly, make your plans contingent on the direction you may have to take and know the routes you may need to drive.
The Sonoma County Department of Emergency Management has all the information you need to work out your own plans. Please visit www.sonomacounty. ca.gov/Emergency-Management and explore the options.