Oakmont evacuation better this time, but not perfect
Oakmonters and local fire and police officials have done lots of planning over the years. There are better warning systems for people to sign up for, better communication systems between residents, better evacuation plans during an emergency, and in general more information to make residents fire safe and fire ready.
But, as the recent evacuation of the 4,500-resident over-55 community showed during the recent Glass Fire, which came within inches of reaching further into the 3,200- home development, there are still some issues to talk about.
Fire crews valiantly stopped the flames. The Glass Fire did destroy three Oakmont residences on the west side, and one triplex further down the highway, but it could have been a lot worse.
While the fire warning and Oakmont evacuation process is much improved since prior emergencies, there were stories about people stuck in long bottlenecks in Oakmont and along Highway 12
In general, it seems that those who decided to leave as soon as an evacuation warning came, reportedly some time before 9 or 10 p.m., fared better, time-wise, than those who waited until the evacuation order was issued a little before 11 p.m.
Dennis McCaffrey, who lives with his wife Stephanie Chapralis on the east side of Oakmont, really didn’t want to leave right away when the warning came, but Chapralis thought otherwise.
They had clear sailing leaving Oakmont and driving towards Sonoma.
“It was definitely good to leave early,” said McCaffrey. “I tried to talk Stephanie out of it but she was right.”
Doyle Dietz-Allen and her husband Tom Allen decided that they would wait for the order, due to a previous experience of receiving an erroneous evacuation message during last year’s Kincade fire. After it came, they started to drive across Oakmont to pick up an elderly friend. It took an hour and a half, and when they got there it turned out that police had already evacuated the woman. At this point they were on Pythian Road and then drove right to Highway 12 and headed east without much of a wait.
Their house, which backs up to the highway, had fences and some landscaping burn.
“The firefighters saved our house,” said Dietz-Allen. “I just can’t believe it got this close.”
“One area that still needs working on is managing traffic control [within Oakmont],” said Andy Robart. He and his wife, Elisabeth Romayko, waited until the order was issued, and then got in their car to leave, quickly finding themselves in a traffic jam as different streets were funneling into Pythian Road to get to the highway.
“Overall things are better, but there needs to be some more progress here,” said Robart.
Pat Barclay, of the Oakmont Emergency Preparedness Committee, said that things went a lot smoother than 2017, though there was, “a healthy backlog getting out.”
A positive, said Barclay was, “once people got the warning, a lot of them started leaving.”
Steve Spanier, president of the Oakmont Village Association Board of Directors, said his personal experience wasn’t bad, likely in part due to the fact he left after receiving the evacuation warning.
“We knew the bottlenecks coming out of Oakmont, so we wanted to get out at the warning alert.”
There are two main arteries to two-lane Highway 12 out of Oakmont, one on Oakmont Drive and one on Pythian Road. Earlier this summer Oakmont and Santa Rosa officials worked out a third option in an emergency, Channel Drive, which is technically an emergency vehicle access route, and can be used under certain circumstances.
Paul Lowenthal, Assistant Fire Marshal for the Santa Rosa Fire Department, said the night of the Glass Fire, he called to have fire staff open the gate on Channel Drive. He said the egress was used by Oakmont residents, particularly those living in what is designated as the Stonebridge zone.
After the evacuation was successful, emergency vehicles used the road, since the fire started to spot in Trione-Annadel State Park above Channel Drive.
“The evacuation notices were sent well in advance and gave plenty of time to allow for evacuation and traffic to subside,” said Lowenthal. Evacuating Oakmont allowed firefighters to move freely to help protect structures and put out spot fires.
Traffic backups were expected, said Lowenthal.
“That’s why we had law enforcement at every single intersection,” he said.
Spanier said the Channel Drive egress, “helped, but it’s not enough” given the time it took for some to get out of Oakmont.
“I think the problem is if you have to try and evacuate 3,200 homes all at once,” said Spanier. “If people need to get out in a hurry, I just don’t know the solution to that problem unless you turn Highway 12 into a six-lane highway.”
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