As Fires Rage, California Refines An Important Skill: Evacuating

- Oct 30, 2019-

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — As fire blazed just eight miles away from Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, its chief executive Mike Purvis received a phone call from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency. The hospital was officially being ordered to evacuate.

Within minutes of the Saturday evening call, his staff was in motion. They went into an incident command center in an empty conference room and started calling other hospitals to find a place for each patient. Eighty-six were moved, many within a few hours, with ambulances rapidly shuttling the majority of patients and a few helicopters transporting the most critical cases.

As the nation’s most populous state adjusts to what could be years of record wildfires, cities, businesses and residents are acclimating to a new punishing regimen that will reshape life in California. Cities are using emergency powers to send mobile alerts to all residents. Authorities are giving far more time to families and businesses to leave danger zones, which have expanded in size. And residents are quicker to trust the calls to evacuate. The new evacuation strategies are a sign of how California, strung between the dueling risks of fires and rolling power outages, is adapting to a new reality many officials attribute to climate change.

“Certainly we feel well prepared now. We’ve done it twice, which is twice more than anyone would like to do it,” said Purvis. “But let’s hope that doesn’t become a regular thing.”


1/51 SLIDES© Noah Berger/AP Photo            
A helicopter drops water while battling the Kincade Fire near Healdsburg, on Oct. 29. Millions of people have been without power for days as fire crews race to contain two major wind-whipped blazes that have destroyed dozens of homes at both ends of the state: in Sonoma County wine country and in the hills of Los Angeles.

Gallery by photo services

Memories of the fires in Sonoma County a mere two years ago — which claimed 22 lives — are still fresh here in this area which saw an exodus of 200,000 residents over the weekend. In interviews, businesses, families and others expressed a remarkably similar sentiment: this time, the evacuation went much smoother.

Maria De La O, who lives in Windsor, Calif., the city nine miles from Santa Rosa that was one of the first to burn in the Kincade Fire that started Wednesday, was evacuated three times over the weekend: from her house, then her sister’s in Santa Rosa, and then her mother’s, also in Santa Rosa. She said officials seemed much more prepared than two years ago. “I think the evacuations allow them to do their job and put out fires,” said the 55 year-old, who saw on TV firefighters dousing her house and saving it. “I know some people are probably not happy that they have to evacuate, but I would rather evacuate in case something happens.”

It is too early to tell whether the current blazes will be as deadly as two years ago. But some authorities attribute the lack of deaths to the way Californians are adapting.