Fire Officials: Evacuation Went as Planned

Jackie Ryan and Jim Brewer

            Since 2017, firefighters have worried about the threat from the unburned areas of the Tubbs and Nuns fires. And that’s how the fire played out in the early hours of Sept. 28, cresting the Mayacamas and eventually burning into Oakmont.  

            And despite some grumbling by residents who had to face long backups getting out of Oakmont, the evacuation went “exactly as we envisioned,” said Paul Lowenthal, Santa Rosa’s assistant fire marshal and public information officer.

Lowenthal

           “We’ve heard from people who didn’t think they should have to sit in traffic. We evacuated people early. We knew they would be sitting in traffic and we were fine with that,” said Lowenthal. “(It) was expected and law enforcement was at every intersection from Oakmont to Hoen Avenue. The success of the evacuation is measured by our ability to freely move around Oakmont once everybody was evacuated and the fire finally got there.”  

            Conditions also did not require making both lanes of Highway 12 one way. Channel Drive, designated for emergency egress, was used by just “a few” residents. Expectations that the greatest threat would have come from Trione-Annadel State Park were eclipsed by fire from the north, and Channel Drive users were gone by the time responders needed it for fire vehicles.

            Scott Westrope, Santa Rosa deputy fire chief, described limited resources and first responders who were “doing a lot with very little, hitting it with everything we had.

            “There were just so many houses impacted,” he said. “From Melita Road to Pythian Road, it all came across at the same time.”

            He credits early evacuations and aggressive fire fighting for the outcomes. 

            “Losing 31 homes in the district is way too many, but it could have been a lot worse. And we are going to continue to work with the communities, because vegetation management was a key factor in Oakmont. When I drive through the fire area and see what happened, I get shivers to see what the firefighters did. It was remarkable they were even able to save what they did.”

            Lowenthal said “At one point we had a van full of fire recruits back in there with hand tools, so we were doing a lot with very little. We were fortunate to get an LA County strike team that was on its way to Napa that helped us out a lot.” At another point Lowenthal said he found himself giving cell phone updates to Santa Rosa radio station KSRO while he squirted water from a garden hose into a rain gutter that had burst into flame.

            The two fire officials also credited the defensible space and vegetation management done by Oakmont homeowners. They underscored the need for home hardening and keeping focused on the zero to five-foot area around homes as a first priority. They urged residents to follow the Santa Rosa Fire Department’s fire protection plan that calls for limbing-up trees back from rooftops and chimneys, keeping rain gutters screened, clean and clear, and creating a defensible space area. They also said in replacing wood fences, including along highway 12, what’s important is keeping the fence a safe distance from houses. Parts of fences or gates that connect to homes should be fire resistant. 

            They said communities need plans and strategies. “If an HOA decided to remove all junipers and other species that they don’t want and if it was to cost, say, half a million dollars, does that truly eliminate the threat to the community? “ Lowenthal said.

            “What if that $500,000 could be used to help every resident maintain the three- to five-foot combustible space defense area? I would argue that that is more beneficial than removing every juniper, manzanita and Rosemary throughout the entire community.” 

            Westrope said the department uses a holistic approach in fighting fires and readying communities to prepare and respond, noting that small improvements “in Oakmont made the biggest difference.” Going forward the department is developing formal goals that include resident education programs and ways to provide guidance on vegetation management and home hardening, as well as future inspection and enforcement measures.

             Lowenthal said unfortunately the 2017 fires have been etched as normal and “it was not normal.” Web camera monitoring systems, better evacuation plans triggered earlier and warning alert systems are now in the arsenal for defending lives and property. He said some residents are beginning to ask had the fire started on Highway 12 instead of coming from the Mayacamas how would Oakmont be evacuated.

            “That’s a very different animal,” he said.  “A fire that starts on Highway 12 is not going to be a fire front that extends all the way from Pythian road to Skyhawk. The fire that initiates on Highway 12 is going to be much smaller, and not have the ability to spot a mile and a half ahead of itself, not have the momentum from burning through thousands of acres before it got to that point. It would be what we typically respond to as a routine grass fire. In fact, we did have a grass fire in that general area last summer. It was a roadside fire, and it did get extinguished very quickly.”

            For the remainder of the 2020 fire season, residents will see firefighters monitoring the state park areas for several weeks. With Red Flag high wind and temperature warnings, Lowenthal said the departments will be adding staff across Sonoma County.