Fears of worst-case scenario disaster evacuations, with people cut off or trapped in gridlock as they try to escape a big fire in vehicles or on foot, are heightened this week in the Mother Lode and other California communities, as the death toll in the wind-driven Camp Fire 175 miles north of Sonora has climbed to more than 40.
Foothill and mountain communities with limited ways in and out can pose the biggest challenges to public safety responders trying to evacuate residents during fast-moving, unpredictable megafires, Lt. Eric Erhardt, a 16-year veteran of the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office, said Tuesday.
“Look at housing developments that have one way in and one way out,” said Erhardt, who has been tapped to become assistant county administrator with oversight of the Office of Emergency Services. “Like during the Rim Fire, Ponderosa Hills, we were worried about it. People selling houses up there won’t like it, but these places with limited access are a concern when it’s time to evacuate.”
Local firefighters in the Mother Lode have pounced on recent structure fires in remote, rural, hillside settings, preventing sudden blazes from blowing up and becoming monstrous infernos, including the Quail Fire that consumed two homes Oct. 25 on Big Hill, and the explosive fire that destroyed one home Monday night on Appey Way off Campo Seco.
But with evacuees from the devastating Camp Fire seeking safety in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, and the rising death toll in the Paradise area of Butte County making it the deadliest fire in Golden State history, people here are worried about emergency plans, warning systems and safe evacuations whenever the next disaster strikes the Mother Lode.
Utilities and their power lines are a major concern as well.
Both Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison have reported electrical infrastructure malfunctions near ground zero for the historic Camp Fire and for the deadly Woolsey Fire in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, respectively. The state Public Utilities Commission is investigating California’s two largest utility companies and their roles in these current fires.
In Tuolumne County, Cal Fire and county fire investigators have yet to disclose a cause in the Quail Fire, and the cause of the Appey Fire on Monday night also remained under investigation.
Tuolumne County has two existing plans that distinctly address hazards such as wildfire, floods and earthquakes, Jason Terry, an analyst with the county Office of Emergency Services, said Tuesday. One is a Multi-Jurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan and the other is an Emergency Operations Plan.
A vulnerability assessment in the 125-page 2018 updated hazard mitigation plan estimates the county’s overall life and property threats are high for wildland fires, medium for floods, other extreme weather events and volcanic activity, and low for earthquake probability.
The county’s emergency operations plan, approved in 2012, is 292 pages and notes that the preservation of life, property, and the environment is an inherent responsibility of local, state, and federal governments.
The county deploys a mass notification platform when evacuations are deemed necessary but it’s unclear how well the Everbridge Alert System works when it’s time to inform residents of a major disaster.
During last year’s Jacksonville Fire outside Jamestown, some people reported getting alerts and evacuation advisories and warnings even though the blaze near Don Pedro Reservoir was nowhere close to their neighborhoods and homes.
Tuolumne County has a contract with Comcast to receive landline numbers, Terry said, but residents are urged to sign up on their own with their mobile devices, to receive alerts of major disasters.
The county does not distribute evacuation maps for individual neighborhoods, Terry said. In the event of an evacuation, alerts will be sent out using every media option available including, if feasible, a Sheriff’s Deputy making contact with residents. The authority to evacuate lies with the Sheriff’s Office.
Angels Camp and Calaveras
Amanda Folendorf, the mayor of Angels Camp and recently re-elected to the town’s City Council, said Tuesday it’s unfortunate “we are having to have this conversation here locally giving the tragedies happening across the state.”
Folendorf said the vulnerability of local communities and the deaths in Butte County are a perfect example of why local governments and residents need to get behind their police and fire departments.
“We can no longer dismiss this, Paradise is an unfortunate example of why we need to invest in these departments,” Foledorf said. “For so long many have preferred not to invest due to ‘it will never happen.’ It is not a waste of money. We cannot afford to make that our excuse anymore. We have a responsibility to make sure our staff has the resources to protect our community by investing in equipment and technology.”
Angels Camp has an Emergency Operations Plan that was approved by the City Council in 2012, Melissa Eads, the city administrator, said Tuesday.
“After seeing the extreme fire behavior and devastation in the past few years in places like Redding, Santa Rosa, Paradise, and Ventura there is definitely potential for something like that to happen anywhere in the Motherlode, including Angels Camp,” Eads said. “Being a foothill community with narrow roads and single access ways in and out of portions of the county it is a real life concern.”
Back on June 1, Calaveras County launched a new emergency notification system called Calaveras Alert, based on the same Everbridge product platform used in Tuolumne County, Michelle Patterson, the Office of Emergency Services director for Calaveras.
The new system can only accurately warn residents on their mobile phones and computers and landlines with accurate, updated information about county residents, so Patterson and her office have been doing outreach to make people aware of Calaveras Alert.
“We were able to get some landline data for some residents of Calaveras County,” Patterson said. “But we’ve discovered a lot of that data is inaccurate. It’s important for people to register on their own to ensure the county has their correct contact information and phone numbers. You can register multiple cell phone numbers and email addresses.”
Calaveras County has also recently partnered with Calaveras County Water District to include sign-up slips for Calaveras Alert with people’s water bills. Patterson said she wants to emphasize that individual residents and families and households need to take responsibility for knowing their best evacuation routes and disaster plans.
“What I really want to bring home to people is that they have to take the initiative and prepare themselves,” Patterson said. “In their distinct neighborhoods they need to know the best ways out and know what to take when they need to leave quickly, like those folks did that were impacted by the Camp Fire.”
Josh White, the chief of Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit, said Tuesday that the tragedy that has taken place in Butte County is a threat that all of the foothill communities, as well as so many other communities in California.
“This late in the season without significant rains,” White said, “the fuels are tinder dry and once again we are seeing Energy Release Components at or near record levels.”
The fire on Appey Way was reported at 8 p.m. Monday when an apparent chimney fire blew up and consumed a home on a hillside off Campo Seco outside Jamestown.
Davis Dean, 20, said the house belonged to his grandparents, Yvonne and Bill Morse.
He lives in an apartment above one of two garages on the property and he was sitting outside when he saw the fire come up from the chimney.
“It blew up and fell into the house,” he said. “The whole house went up. The doors flew open.”
No one was injured, Dean said as he stood about 10 yards from the fire Monday night. He said he ran in and saved two dogs. A firefighter saved two cats, named Stuart and Bo.
Yvonne Morse said the house had indoor and outdoor fireplaces that shared the same chimney.
“It started smoking and the eaves of the roof started smoking,” she said. “There was an explosion."
She said they moved to the house from Sonora eight weeks ago.
The fire burned for several hours. Firefighters declared it contained at 12:05 a.m. Tuesday. The absence of strong, gusting wind aided firefighter efforts to prevent the blaze from spreading.
Battalion chief Loren Monsen of Twain Harte Fire Department said at the scene that 95 percent of the house was destroyed. He could not confirm the fire started in the flue or the chimney and said the cause under investigation.
Responding to the fire were 10 engines, three water tank trucks, a couple of supervisors from Cal Fire Tuolumne Calaveras Unit, Columbia Fire Protection District and Sonora Fire Department.
“I was just thinking today I need to get some stuff together for the poor people in Paradise and this is nothing compared to them, Morse said. “We have a strong faith and that will see us through.”
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.