Recent news reports identifying Ramona as one of the top three San Diego County communities with the worst emergency evacuation routes brings to light gaps in wildfire and natural disaster preparedness and attempts to fill the cracks.
The study highlighting evacuation deficiencies was a USA Today-California Network analysis of California communities that compared number of roadway lanes available for the size of community populations. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Cal Fire and OpenStreetMap were combined to determine the greatest number of people living in the highest-risk areas with the fewest number of lanes to leave in any direction.
Ramona and surrounding areas in the 92065 ZIP code were identified among the worst 1 percent in the state when it comes to population-to-evacuation-route ratios.
The findings come as no surprise to Ramona leaders who are engaged in efforts to improve evacuation conditions and prepare the population for safe exits or, alternatively, sheltering in place.
Among them is Ramona resident Jim Cooper, who chairs the Ramona Community Planning Group’s Transportation and Trails Subcommittee. He saw how Ramona residents experienced roadway gridlock during evacuations for both the 2003 Cedar fire and 2007 Witch Creek fire. Evacuees spent hours on the two main arteries out of Ramona -- state Routes 67 and 78 -- with some drivers running out of gas en route to safer communities. In some cases, people were hindered from returning to town to rescue family members and animals.
“Everybody in Ramona has a story and none of them are good,” said Cooper, whose wife spent seven hours, from 3:30 to 10:30 p.m., in gridlock on state Route 67 while attempting to flee the Witch Creek fire.
Cooper became serious about researching evacuation capabilities in an attempt to find solutions beginning in spring 2018. His quest focused on evidence-based information, which he found to be lacking.
“I began to Google road modeling programs to determine the static vehicle capacity of the roads, which means cars are not moving,” Cooper said. “I approached it from the perspective of Highway 67 to determine, ‘What is the capacity of the roadway as far as evacuations?’”
Cooper also began to collect data. Among the resources he found were the 2003 San Diego County Fire Siege Fire Safety Review -- an analysis of the area response to the Cedar Fire -- and the book, “The Fire Outside My Window,” that tells author Sandra M. Younger’s firsthand account of surviving the Cedar fire from the perspective of a Ramona resident.
He also reviewed the Ramona Community Planning Area Community Protection and Evacuation Plan of October 2005, which was revised in January 2011 and updated again in May 2014. Section E of the plan describes recommended exit routes and suggests which intersections should be staffed with a traffic control officer.
Cooper said only one document he came across addresses solutions required to keep the vehicle evacuation gridlock from reoccurring. That is the San Diego Emergency Operations Plan - September 2018 Annex Q. The document contains a formula for determining evacuation times. Evacuation times are calculated by dividing evacuation population average vehicle occupancy by roadway capacity.
Cooper said he applied the formula in informal calculations based on a population of 55,000 and vehicle occupancy of four to five people per vehicle. A definitive population count was unavailable, partly due to outdated available Census data of 2010.
“A quick and unprofessional application of this formula reveals that SR-67 would hold a static vehicle capacity of about 1,650 vehicles versus the Ramona population demand of roughly 7,500 vehicles,” Ramona Community Planning Group (RCPG) members said in a prepared presentation to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors on April 30. “While this number represents a static road capacity, vehicle movement must go at a rate of four times or more to come near this vehicle demand -- and SR-67 will not currently support this demand.
“We in Ramona know that SR-67 cannot meet the evacuation demands for the next fire. We have experienced it twice. But without the results of scientific modeling studies, no facts exist sufficient to develop an evidence-based requirement for expansion of SR-67.”
The RCPG has sent letters to county staff requesting they provide the planning group with evacuation modeling studies.
The RCPG has also made headway with its Highway 67 Ad Hoc Committee. The committee consisting of Dan Summers, Robin Joy Maxson, Dawn Perfect, Torry Brean and Cooper, has made several presentations to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), urging the group to widen SR-67 to a total of four lanes -- two in each direction - before the scheduled 2036-50 timeframe in the San Diego Forward: The Regional Plan. The length of the widening suggested by the Highway 67 Ad Hoc Committee is from Highland Valley/Dye Roads to Scripps Poway Parkway.
One of the main goals of widening SR-67 is improving ingress and egress to Ramona in emergency situations. Three lanes could be used to evacuate people leaving Ramona and one lane could be used to allow emergency vehicles to pass through and enable people separated from their families and animals to return to town.
Cooper said a monkey wrench has been thrown in the process with SANDAG’s recent proposal to divert TransNet tax funds intended for expansions and improvements to major roadways. SANDAG’s proposed plan for the funds collected from a half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2004 is building a network of hundreds of miles of high-speed transit. The environmentally-friendly proposal unveiled by SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata encompasses most of the county but does not extend east beyond Poway.
The county Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 on April 30 to oppose the transit plan. Supervisors Dianne Jacob, Jim Desmond and Kristin Gaspar voted in favor of rejecting the plan based on their view it betrays the public trust as voters were promised improved highways and roads in exchange for a tax increase. Supervisors Greg Cox and Nathan Fletcher voted in opposition.
Cooper said the transit proposal delays SANDAG’s 2020 Regional Transportation Plan to 2021.
“The transportation hub has not been fleshed out, nor have costs been assigned to it,” Cooper said. “That’s why the transportation plan has been postponed to 2021. In the meantime, we’re in a holding pattern (with SR-67 widening plans).”
Kristi Mansolf, president of the Ramona West End Fire Safe Council formed a decade ago, said that in recent years an evacuation map created in conjunction with the sheriff’s department has been distributed in the Ramona Sentinel. She said at one time 11,000 copies were distributed.
The map identifies which evacuation routes to use depending on which direction the fire is approaching from. The two-sided handout includes detailed information about steps to take before and during an evacuation and tells what persons can do if they are unable to evacuate.
The map identifies state Routes 67 and 78 as primary exit routes, but some people have suggested Highland Valley Road could be used as an alternate route if no fire is occurring in the area. Mansolf said she plans to discuss the map with Ramona sheriff’s Lt. Ken Jones.
Mansolf said the issue of evacuating Ramonans safely should be looked at from a variety of angles. In addition to determining adequate road capacity and road conditions, consideration should be given to protecting people’s safety, she said.
“As far as sheltering people in Ramona, the high school and (I believe) the middle school have been opened in the past for shelters, but no shelter of any kind was set up in Ramona in 2007 because the fire was moving too fast,” Mansolf said.
Cal Fire Public Information Officer Issac Sanchez said heavy winter and spring rain means the region will be susceptible to a huge fire risk in the coming months. Because of the continuous nature of the risks, Cal Fire no longer identifies fire seasons. He said Cal Fire adjusts staffing levels based on immediate threats year-round.
“Vegetation is dying and it won’t take long to get right back to where we were with vegetation ready to burn,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said the community needs to be prepared for a wildfire or other natural disaster by identifying multiple escape routes out of the community in the event they need to evacuate. He said people can also prepare themselves by reading information on the ReadyForWildfire.org and ReadySanDiego.org websites.
During an incident, he said AlertSanDiego.org will issue alerts similar to AMBER alerts on cell phones and landlines and through email that will be sent to everyone in the region regardless of their location.
In cooperation with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Cal Fire will also recommend which communities need to evacuate and the sheriff’s will notify evacuees through a reverse 911 system, he said.
“We offer recommendations on preparations they should do if they need to evacuate and help them identify multiple escape routes if they do need to evacuate,” he said.
Section G of the Ramona Community Protection and Evacuation Plan states: “When fire officials direct, or if sheriff’s deputies see that it is necessary to conduct an evacuation advisory of the community, they will provide the evacuation advisory in the areas with the most imminent threat first. The evacuation advisory will be based on the information known at the time.
“Depending on circumstances, there may be time to collect valuables, or the evacuation advisory may be urgent, where there is only time for evacuees to get into their vehicle and follow the route that the deputy provides. This underscores the importance of preparation on the part of residents.”
Information about Ramona’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan is available through the Fire Safe Council of San Diego County’s website, FireSafeSDCounty.org. Click on “Fire Safe Councils” then “Community Wildfire Protection Plans.” A link to Ramona’s plan is under “CWPPs in San Diego County.”