By Nadin Abbott; editor Miriam Raftery also contributed to this report
Photo credti: UCSD's HPWren webcam atop Lyon's Peak
An advisory evacuation clearly means that authorities believe those homes are at risk of burning. But by not opening shelters-- or closing shelters unannounced in the middle of an emergency--officials are sending a disturbing signal: If you leave now, you’re on your own.
September 10, 2013 (San Diego) East County Magazine has encountered disturbing issues with emergency shelters found closed during three major evacuations in the past two months alone. How many other times has this have occurred—and what can be done to better protect residents during disasters? Today, we brought the issue to the County Board of Supervisors at a public hearing.
The first troubling incident occurred during the Chariot Fire this summer. ECM visited a shelter announced by authorities at Alpine High School around 8:30 p.m. on the first evening of the fire. We found the place empty, not even a note for anyone who arrived, though hundreds had been told to evacuate from the Mount Laguna area and roads were blocked to prevent anyone from going home. The fast and inexplicable shut-down allowed no time for evacuees to check in who may have first stopped to eat dinner at a roadside diner or picked up supplies, only to find the shelter closed. (By the second day this shelter was reopened and provided a place for people to stay overnight.)
During the Mt. Helix SWAT incident that lasted 15 hours in our editor’s neighborhood, a Sheriff’s media representative told ECM that a shelter was being opened at the Skyline Church. We later heard that no shelter was set up, even though some residents were evacuated in armored trucks and others were barred by roadblocks from coming home until after the gunman was declared dead at 3:30 a.m. or so.
Yesterday at 3:30 p.m. during the Lyons Fire, the Sheriff sent notices to residents informing them to evacuate and go to the Jamul Primary School. Soon after, the County Emergency Services also sent a similar notice listing the school as a shelter. ECM visited the school site at 6:30 at night. Again, the shelter--the evacuation point--was closed.
No notice was sent to media about the change in status, and area residents say they were not informed either.
We learned from Kim Hamilton, editor at the Deerhorn Antler that “People didn’t know they couldn’t get into the area until they came home from work. Then they were pressed to find a place to stay.” That would be around the time we visited the Jamul Primary School.
During other recent wildfires, I’ve driven all the way from San Diego to rural areas, arriving to find an announced shelter not open yet or stocked with supplies. Eventually supplies arrived, much to the relief of hot, tired and thirsty residents left waiting in extreme weather conditions. I’ve taken to carrying water and blankets for just such occasions now.
This morning, Supervisors held a hearing on wildfire readiness issues, including a presentation by the Red Cross on improvements made since the 2007 firestorms.
As a former Red Cross incident commander in Mexico, I know that we kept shelters open there at least 24 hours, no exceptions.
After I testified to the Supervisors about the problems with shelter closures locally with no notifications, Supervisor Dianne Jacob asked me to step outside the hearing room and speak with Leslie Luke, the Group Program Manager, in the County Office of Emergency Services.
He said that he will be looking into it, and asking questions of the Red Cross as to what happened. It was pointed out to him that there were Red Cross vehicles near the Command Post, which is five miles from the school as the crow flies but more like 20 miles over winding, narrow backcountry roads.
There was also some confusion over evacuations, purely misunderstanding by multiple media outlets given that the California Highway Patrol posted on its website that CHP had cleared the area east of Four Corners, on Lyons Valley Rd. The Sheriff Nixle alert to residents also advised residents east of those areas to evacuate.
So today while waiting for the meeting to start, I had an opportunity to talk with Captain Mike Moehler of Cal Fire.
Moehler explained to ECM that an advisory notice to evacuate means that there was a face-to-face contact with residents (as well as the Nixle alerts from the Sheriff sent via text messages). Residents were told there is a fire, but it was not mandatory to leave. Cal Fire considers an evacuation mandatory only when the reverse 911 system is activated.
Having done emergency services myself, I am aware that especially early on, getting accurate information can at times be as challenging as getting emergency crews in. We all try, and it can be frustrating at times.
I am also aware that the priority is to get people out of what is called in Emergency Services the “hot zone” -- the highest risk area for both property and life. To firefighters' credit, no structures were lost or damaged in yesterday's blaze that as of this writing, has charred 450 acres, and no lives were lost.
But providing shelter after people leave these evacuation areas should be a high priority as well, even if evacuations are not mandatory. People need to know that if media tells them that a shelter is open, they can rely on that information and will find an open shelter.
Not only does it make media look bad when inaccurate and misleading information is provided to media by emergency providers and the County, but ultimately the population will lose trust in emergency providers and the County.
How reliable is shelter information relayed to media and the public by County representatives – and will the County take steps to correct this disturbing pattern of misinformation during critical times? For a family with limited resources, such as not enough money to refill a gas tank, arriving at a shelter to find it closed could even put lives in peril.
Given some off-the-record conversations that ECM had with residents at the Lyons Valley Trading Post yesterday, bad information from the County, Cal Fire or Sheriff partly explains the reluctance of many backcountry residents to evacuate when the orders do come. We’ve heard similar complaints during past fires from residents burned before by lack of shelter resources for themselves, their families, their pets and their livestock.
Even when shelters are open for human evacuees, too often there is no place for animals, leading some property owners to risk sheltering in place rather than evacuating—fueling a strong and understandable mistrust of authorities. Why isn’t it standard practice to provide a shelter for livestock and pets during all evacuations, advisory and mandatory?
An advisory evacuation clearly means that authorities believe those homes are at risk of burning. But by not opening shelters or closing them unannounced in the middle of an emergency, officials are sending a disturbing signal: If you leave now, you’re on your own.
There are many pieces to juggle in a fire. There are many agencies as well. They all need to work like a well-oiled machine, but the public will quite honestly blame the person in front of the camera such as a fire official giving out wrong information, even if the errors came from another official source. It also fuels mistrust of Cal Fire, which the County has positioned to run the County Fire Authority seeking to takeover rural fire agencies.
It is my hope that the County, the Sheriff, and fire authorities particularly Cal Fire will work to coordinate information about shelters to make sure that during any evacuation—voluntary or mandatory—a shelter is opened and stays open until the danger is past and residents can go safely home, and never shut down as nighttime approaches and an emergency is still in progress.
As I told the Supervisors, there is more to a shelter than just coffee. A shelter is also essential on the road to recovery, providing vital information to disaster survivors.
East County Magazine will be visiting shelters more often during future emergencies to see if the promised havens are truly open for weary evacuees or not. We urge other media outlets to do the same, and to join our call for much needed improvements to assure a safe shelter for all who are asked to leave their homes during a raging wildfire or other disaster.
Readers: If you've had an experience finding a shelter closed during an evacuation in your area, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org with details to help us document these problems and hopefully find solutions.