Evacuation warnings from a circling helicopter’s loudspeaker provided Amber Bowers with her first indication of the fire threat to her Boulder Creek neighborhood.
“My mind stopped working. I was in shock,” said Bowers, a part-time town of Los Altos Hills employee. “So I kind of walked in circles, got my pets and my kids, and we left.”
That was Aug. 18, two days after the start of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. Bowers and her family haven’t returned home since, she told virtual attendees of a Los Altos Hills wildland evacuation forum last week. She knows her home suffered fire damage but that it is still standing. Many of her neighbors’ homes are not.
Thursday’s forum was one of three offered in the past week for the benefit of Hills residents, many of whom harbor anxiety following an Aug. 23 evacuation warning issued for nearby communities threatened by the CZU Lightning Complex in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties; as part of a Sept. 8 Los Altos Hills Club meeting, Los Altos Hills County Fire District officials shared their experiences volunteering after the 2018 Camp Fire, and an encore of the wildland evacuation forum followed Tuesday evening. The presentations were meant to promote preparation and resiliency as the historic 2020 California wildfire season rages on.
“This has been a really scary couple of weeks. …We got kind of close, so I don’t like that,” said Marsha Hovey, town emergency manager and the moderator of the two wildland evacuation forums.
Fire District Commissioner Terry Kearney told Hills Club members about volunteering with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue team, which looked for human remains in Butte County following the Camp Fire. The 153,000-acre blaze is considered the deadliest and most destructive in California history, claiming at least 85 lives and destroying more than 18,000 structures.
Propelled by 90 mph Diablo Winds, the Camp Fire advanced the distance of a football field every few seconds, Kearney said.
The Northern California town of Paradise suffered the most casualties from the fire. Compared to Los Altos Hills, the town experiences drier conditions and stronger winds and has more flammable vegetation, Kearney said. But Paradise also features wider roads allowing for faster evacuations.
“These roads: very, very twisty, very convoluted, very narrow. A lot of fuel,” Kearney said, sharing his computer screen, which showed a map of the Hills. “It worries me dramatically every time we drive through our town.”
Fire district emergency services coordinator Denise Gluhan contributed wildfire preparedness and evacuation tips to the forum. She praised a district Community Emergency Response Team member for helping her elderly Los Altos Hills neighbors evacuate before the official Aug. 23 CZU Lightning Complex warning; many of the victims of the Camp Fire and the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa were elderly and/or disabled.
According to 2018 American Community Survey five-year estimates, 27.2% of Los Altos Hills residents are 65 and older, compared to 16.1% in Santa Rosa. Before the Camp Fire, Paradise’s population consisted of 25.8% of residents 65 and older, though the town’s population plummeted by an estimated 90% after the fire.
Gluhan emphasized the importance of Red Flag warnings, alerts issued for extreme weather events that could cause fire, to her audience. She likened them to tornado warnings in the Midwest.
“For people who have mobility issues or trouble getting evacuated, I recommend they go ahead of that and go find some place,” she said. “Stay with friends, stay with relatives, whatever they need to do ahead of that on Red Flag days.”
Emergency preparedness and evacuation tips
Gluhan and the fire district offered the following tips for residents.
• Prepare a “go bag” ready at a moment’s notice with essential supplies needed for 24 hours.
• Know multiple evacuation routes away from any situation.
• Keep gas vehicles filled with at least half a tank of fuel and electric vehicles charged at all times.
• Remove all flammable materials from around homes. If a threat appears imminent, consider removing fence panels and lattices that could create a fire “ladder” to residences.
• Remove litter from roof gutters and skylights.
• Keep refuse bin lids closed so embers don’t enter.
• If required to evacuate, do so in a long-sleeved shirt, pants, closed-toe shoes, a head covering and a mask to protect against flying embers.
• If unable to evacuate in a timely manner, seeking refuge indoors may be a safer alternative than attempting to flee on foot or becoming stuck in a nonmoving vehicle, where exposure to toxic gases is more likely.
• Maintain out-of-area emergency contacts. Long-distance phone lines are less likely than local lines to be overloaded during an emergency.
• Register for local emergency alerts from Nixle at nixle.com and AlertSCC at sccgov.org/alertscc.
• If you don’t feel safe, leave.
• After a disaster, notify friends and family members through the American Red Cross “Safe and Well” website at safeandwell.communityos.org.