Ignored evacuation orders frustrated firefighters during County Fire

While city and county officials worked to issue — and then correct — evacuation orders during the County Fire, firefighters raced to save a Winters neighborhood projected to go up in flames

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Donlevy said a “computer grab” was to blame for the Yolo County Office of Emergency Services “incorrectly” notifying more than half of the city’s residents to evacuate. But a county spokesperson disputes that the initial notification was sent in error, telling the Express in an e-mail last week that the first evacuation order was based on a perimeter provided by Cal Fire and that the city initiated the request to have some residents excluded after the order was given. “The Reverse 9-1-1…was accurately sent out based on evacuation perimeters provided by Cal Fire,” Yolo County Public Information Officer Beth Gabor wrote. “Residents in this neighborhood questioned these orders, and as such, the City of Winters quickly requested Cal Fire release this neighborhood from the evacuation order. Cal Fire reviewed the request and agreed the neighborhood could be excluded. As soon as the new order was approved, a cancellation notification was sent.” The notification caused some confusion on social media where residents posted screen shots of text messages they’d received with the conflicting information. The Express initially posted the evacuation order as it was received from Cal Fire, later modifying the information on social media after receiving clarification from officials. Around 10:30 a.m., city officials began going door-to-door in the Golden Bear and Positas neighborhoods warning residents that it was time to leave. In his column last week, Donlevy said the evacuation order was met with “skepticism” by some residents. “Over the past four previous events, the number of people actually evacuating has diminished significantly because of restrictions on re-entry, even when the fire is out,” Donlevy wrote. “People essentially choose to stay, which is their choice.” But it’s a choice that frustrates firefighters, especially when data shows that the neighborhoods are in the direct line of fire. Such was the case with Golden Bear, which Cal Fire officials say was projected to take a direct hit from the County Fire. “When we issue any type of evacuation advisory, essentially we’re advising residents that the fire is apparently close,” Cal Fire spokesperson Dan Olson said in a phone call with the Express last week, adding that mandatory evacuations — like the ones issued for Golden Bear — are typically reserved for “residents that are in harm’s way.” “One of the issues that we deal with on a regular basis is that when we issues those types of evacuations, folks do not adhere to them,” Olson said. “It prevents fire personnel from taking aggressive action against the fire. We then have to use those resources to assist in the evacuation because folks wait too long and then they panic and need assistance.” What ultimately spared Golden Bear from going up in flames was a shift in the wind direction, which gave firefighters the upper hand in protecting the community. “The wind switched to where it became favorable to us and we were able to implement a highly orchestrated and organized fire operation,” Olson said. That operation included creating a fire break around the neighborhood to help keep the fire from spreading to homes. Those buffer zones are important because the County Fire was burning grass and spreading uphill. “Any time you have a fire up a hill, (it) can move 16 times faster when it burns uphill than on a slope,” Olson said. Few residents of Golden Bear seemed to understand the immediate danger they were in: By noon, just one household had heeded the evacuation note, Donlevy wrote. “The residents were staying put and we basically mapped the locations of those staying,” he said. The few who did leave might have found it initially challenging to figure out where to go for shelter. At 1:45 p.m., more than three hours after mandatory evacuation orders had been in place, Yolo County sent out a media alert advising the public that the evacuation centers previously set up in Rumsey and Esparto had closed. The county advised evacuees to head to the Winters Community Center on Railroad Avenue. Less than 30 minutes later, a second e-mail was sent by the county advising them that the evacuation center location had again changed to the Boy Scout Cabin in Esparto. Gabor explained the changes by noting that the city had originally opened the community center as an evacuation center. “As no one was using the Esparto site, it made sense to move county resources to the Winters center.” But no one was using the Winters evacuation center either, Gabor noted, “so the city decided to close it.” The reason may lie in a bungling of vocabulary. In a Facebook post that day, a city official wrote that the community center had been opened as an “information post,” a term Donlevy used in both his e-mail and his column. The Express could not locate a single instance of the city referring to the community center as an evacuation center, and Donlevy wrote that the community center would have not been well-equipped to deal with evacuees anyway. “The Community Center has limited resources — no TV, showers, Internet — and requires lots of resources to be brought in,” Donlevy wrote by e-mail, adding that in the summers where the American Red Cross set up a shelter in Winters, few people took advantage of the resources. Donlevy said he made the decision to redirect people from Winters to Esparto. That decision likely caused the county to send out contradictory information on where the evacuation center was established. “There was a lot going on and we crossed information with the County [Public Information Officer] a bit,” Donlevy wrote by e-mail. “Not a big deal, but it happened and we worked to correct it.” Gabor also acknowledged that when things move quickly, it can be “difficult to do everything perfectly.” “We strive to learn from each emergency, and as such, (we) conduct after action reviews, which will be the case with the County Fire as well,” Gabor wrote by e-mail. But despite a concession that things could have been handled better, Gabor refuted the notion that there was a breakdown in communication between city and county officials on the evacuation phone calls and other issues during the County Fire. “As I understand it from talking to those involved, I wouldn’t say there was a breakdown in communication,” she said.  ]]>

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2 comments
  1. We appreciate you acknowledging the terrific work done by Cal Fire and all its partners. One clarification. While some residents of Golden Bear did not evacuate, a very significant number of us did evacuate.

  2. We appreciate you acknowledging the terrific work done by Cal Fire and all its partners. One clarification. While some residents of Golden Bear did not evacuate, a very significant number of us did evacuate.

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