Get ready, get set ... stall
The deadly wildfire that destroyed Paradise, California, has local fire officials rethinking their own community evacuation plans and whether traffic bottlenecks could block escape routes.
Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief Michael D'Orazi said Paradise streets became clogged with vehicles as people tried to flee the fast-moving wildfire.
“When you have a wildfire and the heat and the smoke and just the sheer terror that can accompany those types of situations, it’s not the best for a timely and effective evacuation process,” D’Orazi said.
The deadliest in California history, the Camp fire killed at least 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 homes and businesses in Paradise. The town in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains had a population of about 27,000 — making it similar in size to Ashland.
Paradise has one main road leading north out of town, but several major roads heading south. The 153,336-acre Camp fire engulfed them all.
Laid out along Highway 99 in the forested foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains, Ashland has one major road heading northwest out of town and two major roads exiting to the southeast.
Residents could also flee north using Oak Street and North Mountain Avenue, which connect to Eagle Mill Road. However, the thousands of tourists who flock to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and other attractions are largely unaware of those escape routes along neighborhood streets.
Ashland Fire & Rescue has been working with the city’s police and public works departments to examine the town’s evacuation and emergency alert systems, D’Orazi said.
He has also been reaching out to the Ashland School District, Southern Oregon University, Asante Ashland Community Hospital and nursing homes about evacuation planning.
Ashland is planning a large-scale evacuation drill in May.
D’Orazi said city officials will likely pick an area of town that would face challenges during a wildfire. They’ll notify residents in advance and ask them to participate by fleeing on designated evacuation routes or streets of their own choosing. Officials will then evaluate the results.
About a decade ago, Ashland put up evacuation route signs in its hillside neighborhoods that direct people down to Siskiyou Boulevard. However, officials are now questioning whether those signs will funnel too many people onto one escape route.
“We have all these cars coming down. That blocks access to the emergency vehicles trying to get up,” D’Orazi said.
In the case of a dangerous, fast-moving fire, firefighters would probably work with police to get people out, rather than battling the blaze, he said.
North Main Street, the major road leading out of town to the northwest, could be a dangerous bottleneck.
In 2012, Ashland put accident-prone North Main Street on a “road diet.” The road once had two car lanes headed out of town and two car lanes entering town. It was switched to a single lane in each direction to make room for a center turn lane for cars and bike lanes.
In the morning and evening, North Main Street has steady lines of traffic in both directions as workers and students come and go from their jobs and school.
During an evacuation, the road could be turned into an exit-only route using all lanes, with no cars allowed in, D’Orazi said.
While Ashland is well known for being in a wildfire hazard area, he said many other Rogue Valley towns face their own evacuation challenges.
Shady Cove is one of several small communities laid out along Highway 62, which stretches north of Medford past Crater Lake National Park.
“Depending on the fire, we have potential bottlenecks,” said Jackson County Fire District 4 Chief Greg Winfrey. “We basically have four routes out — Highway 62 to the north, Highway 62 to the south, Rogue River Drive and Highway 227. All of those have their own problems with trees and brush — basically the wildland — right next to the road. If a large tree is burning and drops, that could cause a road block very easily.”
Most visitors in Shady Cove are unfamiliar with Rogue River Drive, which juts off from Highway 62 and heads south.
Winfrey said even residents in the area tend to take the same roads in and out of Shady Cove, and travel the same neighborhood streets every day to reach their homes.
“People don’t explore other alternatives or ways to get out of town. They only know one way in and one way out. People should explore different ways to get away,” he advised.
Winfrey said people should remember wildfires can sweep into town from surrounding forestland — or be sparked by human activity in town and then spread.
“A simple house fire can turn into a major wildfire event,” he said.
Residents can help reduce that risk by requesting property inspections from firefighters and getting recommendations for reducing fuel loads in their neighborhoods, Winfrey said.
The scattered community of the Greensprings, which stretches along Highway 66 east of Ashland, is among the other Jackson County areas facing evacuation challenges.
“It’s fairly obvious we have only three main ways out for most of the residents in the Greensprings — west or east along Highway 66, or perhaps north on the Hyatt Lake access road,” said Greensprings Rural Fire District Chief Gene Davies.
Like the other fire chiefs, Davies urged local residents to sign up for Jackson County emergency alerts at jacksoncountyor.org/emergency/Resources/Citizen-Alert.
“In our community, we’re spread out over quite a large area,” Davies said. “We don’t anticipate a traffic jam occurring because we don’t have the population. The issue I worry about the most is the communication and notification of all the residents. They can’t make an informed decision if they’re not aware of the situation.”
He said residents need to be alerted to the location of a wildfire so they can flee in the opposite direction.
Davies said Greensprings residents should keep their vehicle gas tanks at least half-full in case they have to escape to the east — away from population centers like Ashland and Medford.
He said all county residents should create their own evacuation plan and assemble a “go kit.” He advised putting prescription medication, important documents, food, water, clothing and other necessities in a travel bag that can be grabbed at a moment’s notice.
D’Orazi, the Ashland fire chief, also recommended assembling important belongings in one accessible space.
Make a pet evacuation plan, and back up family photos on a thumb drive, which is small and portable, he said.
D’Orazi — a veteran of deadly California wildfires and earthquakes — said he’s seen too many people die because they didn’t evacuate in time or they went back to fetch belongings.
“I saw many tragic events that potentially could have been avoided if people had just taken time ahead of the event to plan a little better,” he said.