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.”