Many of California’s most destructive and deadly wildfires have occurred in just the past five years. Those blazes were virtually impossible to control, causing experts to caution that California must improve its wildfire evacuation plans and routes.
“One of the enormous gaps, in my judgment, is evacuation,” said Louise Comfort of the Center for Disaster Management at the University of Pittsburgh. “The last five years of consecutive megafires in California, people have realized, it’s not possible to stop these fires, so the only choice is to get people out of the way.”
But getting people out of the way quickly and safely is a critical challenge that the state must do more to address. A 2020 University of California (UC) report on wildfire evacuations found that “transportation and emergency management agencies across California have widely varying levels of preparedness for major disasters, and nearly all agencies do not have the public resources to adequately and swiftly evacuate all populations in danger.”
The study, conducted by the UC Institute of Transportation Studies, was funded by the state’s Public Transportation Account and the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017 (Senate Bill 1) – California’s landmark transportation investment that provides over $5 billion annually to fix roads, freeways and bridges across the state and puts more dollars toward transit and safety.
The study evaluated evacuations across 11 large-scale wildfires in California. The researchers found that the majority of people “evacuated via personal vehicle” and that there were “significant multi-vehicle evacuations” from single households. Not surprisingly, the evacuations placed “considerable stress” on transportation infrastructure and “most evacuees experienced significant congestion” along their evacuation routes.
One of the fires studied was the deadly Camp Fire that spread rapidly through Paradise, CA in 2018. That event illuminated the grim reality that many road systems throughout the state are not designed to handle a sudden emergency evacuation. The report notes that traffic bottlenecks occurred within Paradise and near Chico as “narrow, windy roads led to large amounts of congestion.”
The study also cited these examples of highways and roads failing to support fleeing evacuees: during the Hill Fire, the closure of Highway 101 in Ventura County and Los Angeles counties increased evacuation congestion, and during the Carr Fire, first responders caused congestion on major evacuation routes as they attempted to respond to the fire.
The fundamental problem during the Camp Fire in Paradise was “too few escape lanes for too many people in vehicles,” and Paradise is not unique in that regard. A USA Today analysis of populations, fire risk zones and roadways showed that one out of every 100 ZIP codes in California has a population-to-evacuation-route ratio that is near to or worse than that of Paradise.
A total of 13 ZIP codes in Southern California were identified as being within the worst 1% in the state when it comes to population-to-evacuation-route ratios – more than Northern and Central California combined. Communities within Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties are in these high-risk zones. Some areas – such as Oak Park in Ventura County and the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles County – have even greater numbers of people living in the highest-risk zones, per lane of major roadway out, compared to Paradise.
To ensure that California’s transportation infrastructure can do a better job of handling sudden evacuations during future wildfires, the UC report makes the following key recommendations: “Agencies, including state agencies, should deploy congestion reduction measures…along major arterial roads. In cases where highways are close to the impact area, resources should also be deployed to increase highway capacity” and “transportation response and evacuation models need to account for multi-vehicle households when designing capacity-increasing measures.”
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