When a Deadly Disaster Is 15 Minutes Away Or Less

Abandoned cars, scorched by the wildfire, line Pearson Rd. in Paradise, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018.

Abandoned cars, scorched by the wildfire, line Pearson Rd. in Paradise, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. Noah Berger / AP Photo

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

The Camp Fire’s conflagration prompts important what-if questions for many communities that have limited evacuation routes.

The Camp Fire still being battled to containment in the Sierra Nevada foothills north of Sacramento, California is the type of disaster that prompts questions in communities with limited evacuation routes that are vulnerable to wildfires, flash floods and other threats that can rapidly turn deadly: What would happen if you had to evacuate thousands of people very quickly?

It’s been a very real and difficult question in Butte County, where the Camp Fire, the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire on record, has been burning since last week.  

At least 63 people died last Thursday in and around the town of Paradise, where many were caught off guard by the Camp Fire’s quickly moving flames. With many more people unaccounted for, authorities fear the death toll will rise. As search teams go through the town’s charred ashes and family members submit DNA samples to help identify remains, Paradise’s chaotic evacuation has come under scrutiny.

As the wind-driven flames approached town from the northeast, authorities only issued limited evacuation orders at first. Hoping to avoid a repeat of a chaotic wildfire evacuation from 2008, where the four roads leading out of Paradise were clogged with the cars of fleeing residents, authorities first evacuated neighborhoods closest to the advancing flames.

The problem, as the Los Angeles Times reported this week, was that “it soon became clear that the fire was moving too fast for that plan, and that the whole town was in jeopardy. A full-scale evacuation order was issued at 9:17 a.m., but by then the fire was already consuming the town.”

That’s where residents in Paradise had to make quick and often very brave decisions in how to reach safety, like the heroic nurses evacuating the Feather River Hospital driving through flames to save patients.

As the Camp Fire’s death toll and the list of unaccounted shows, it was already too late for many trying to drive out of town when their cars were consumed by the conflagration.

"Well people died, yes. It did not go perfectly," Mayor Jody Jones said of the evacuation after an emotional town meeting in nearby Chico on Tuesday night, according to KPIX. "I don't know that we could have had a plan that was better, though. The reason we couldn't get everyone out is because you can't fit 26,000 people on the roads all at the same time."

There are countless other communities like Paradise across western states where limited ways in and out of town, topography, fire weather conditions and a simple spark can lead to deadly and destructive results.

As fires were burning elsewhere in the state, emergency managers in San Diego County recently reminded residents to be prepared and think about what they’d do if they were told to evacuate their homes in 15 minutes.

And it’s not just wildfires that pose risks and force people to think about that 15-minute question. Last near, not too far from Paradise, Butte County had to quickly evacuate nearly 200,000 people downriver from the Oroville Dam, where there were fears that the emergency spillway could suddenly fail.  

Flash flooding in communities built in isolated canyons or valleys can be deadly for similar reasons since the road to safety can also be a potential death trap.

In tsunami hazard zones, like the ones along the coasts of Oregon and Washington state, emergency managers expect that following the next megaquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, the first tsunami waves will start hitting the coast in about 15 minutes.

An Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries study of at-risk coastal communities determined the minimum walking times to safe spots out of the inundation zone and developed “Beat the Wave” maps that “depict the minimum evacuation speed required to stay ahead of the tsunami wave given a variety of scenarios that will increase evacuation difficulty.”

A Beat the Wave map for Winchester Bay, Oregon, where people in areas where roads are blue and purple will have to move very quickly on foot to reach a safe location to escape tsunami waves from a major earthquake offshore along the Cascadia Subduction Zone. (via Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Indistries) 

This map models scenarios for Winchester Bay, Oregon, including one that assumes the earthquake’s shaking will have destroyed the Salmon Harbor Bridge, cutting off an important route to safety. In that case, anyone at the Salmon Harbor Marina will have to “sprint” to reach safety before the waves arrive. If the bridge survived intact, people will only have to “jog” or move at the pace of a “fast walk” to reach safety before the tsunami’s inundation.

That emergency management scenario is indeed grim, but as Paradise’s experience with the Camp Fire shows, it’s the type of what-if situation that at-risk communities need to be planning for.

This post was updated Thursday evening with a revised death toll. 

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

NEXT STORY: Pressuring Gun and Ammo Manufacturers Through Police Procurement

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.