By John R. Hawkins
Fire Chief & Operational Area Fire & Rescue Coordinator & William Weiser, Division Chief
Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department
Go! is the message from public safety officials telling you to evacuate. When you are told to evacuate, the message means now. The Ready for Wildfire website contains a downloadable GO! pamphlet, www.readyforwildfire.org/docs/files/File/calfire_go_brochure_LINOweb.pdf.
When to evacuate: Leave as soon as evacuation is recommended by fire or law enforcement officials to avoid being caught in fire, smoke or road congestion. Don’t wait to be ordered by authorities to leave. Evacuating early also helps firefighters keep roads clear of congestion, and lets them move more freely to do their job. In an intense wildfire, they may not have time to knock on every door. If you are advised to leave, don’t hesitate.
• Officials will determine the areas to be evacuated and escape routes to use depending upon the fire’s location, behavior, winds, terrain, etc.
• Law enforcement agencies are typically responsible for enforcing an evacuation order. Follow their directions promptly.
• You will be advised of potential evacuations as early as possible. You must take the initiative to stay informed and aware. Listen to your radio/TV for announcements from law enforcement and emergency personnel.
• You may be directed to temporary assembly areas to await transfer to a safe location.
In Riverside County, there are two directions that authorities use for evacuations.
Evacuation Warning: This is the “set” portion of “Ready, Set, Go.” This order is given when a fire is burning in the area but the property you are at is not directly threatened but might be in the future. Always remember, if you feel threatened by what you see or feel, evacuate.
Evacuation Order: This is the “go” portion of “Ready, Set, Go.” This order may be the first formal order citizens get because a fire has just happened and your property is being threatened very quickly. Based on quickly changing conditions, authorities should be able to identify what escape routes are safe for driving but not always, because the fire is growing quickly and people just need to get out. The mountain has three exit routes: to the north down Highway 243 to Banning; to the south down Highway 74 to Garner Valley and then either take Highway 371 to Anza and Temecula, or stay on Highway 74 to Palm Springs; and west down Highway 243 to Highway 74 to Hemet. Generally, obtain information about where the general fire area is located and go the opposite way. But in all cases, follow official direction. In rare cases, authorities may need to send people to a Temporary Refuge Area. Follow directions and remain calm.
When a fire is growing, authorities will go into a Unified Command. This allows all emergency agencies to set common objectives for a fire. The most important objective is life safety for the public and for firefighters. Evacuation Order and Warning areas will be quickly identified by the Fire Management Team. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, along with Riverside County Emergency Management Department, will implement evacuation and warning orders. The information is disseminated in multiple forms — law enforcement patrol units driving down streets using a public-address system and knocking on doors to advise people of the orders; reverse 9-1-1 system advising people on their home or mobile phone; and department media websites advising of orders and evacuation centers. Follow directions by authorities calmly but quickly. Move with purpose and urgency.
If you are evacuated, evacuation centers are identified by the Riverside County EMD. Evacuation centers are pre-identified outside of a possible fire area before an emergency. This includes evacuation centers for animals. These centers are staffed with American Red Cross workers who work to provide shelter and food during the fire. Agency fire information officers will be at all the shelters to provide the latest information on the progress of the fire but they will not be able to give out information on damages to homes until those assessments are done professionally and accurately.
The toughest part for citizens during a fire is evacuations, but second toughest is re-population (letting people back to their homes). Re-population is a frustrating process for evacuated people. Once a fire has burned through an area with homes, it is the responsibility of the fire chief to ensure the burned area is safe for re-population. This includes mopping up hot spots around homes so no one gets burned on their property; all the electrical lines are picked up off the ground and the area is de-energized; cutting down hazardoustrees so no one gets crushed by a tree falling on a road; and that the area will not be threatened by the fire again in a few hours or days.
When a wildland fire is contained, it often doesn’t smoke as much and looks safe from a distance, but please have patience and know that fire officials are working hard to allow people back home. People will be kept out of the evacuation area by law enforcement. Law enforcement patrols the evacuation area looking for anyone who does not belong in the area (looters).
Authorities never order evacuations without imminent danger to citizens, so when an evacuation order is given, don’t pause, just get out. Evacuating helps firefighters use their few resources to stop the fires’ growth, not saving people’s lives that should have left when ordered.
In the end, a life-threatening fire must prompt immediate and appropriate evacuation, and the word to evacuate must be near instantly communicated to citizens. Firefighters and all public-safety responders always pre-plan and prepare for such an emerging, life-threatening fire. This is true for the San Jacinto-Santa Rosa Mountains areas and is evidenced by the work of the Mountain Area Safety Taskforce, the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council, disaster response and communication groups and, very importantly, your public safety responders. Working together, we are a true team and produce the best outcomes for citizens.
John Hawkins is the fire chief for the Cal Fire Riverside Unit and Riverside County Fire Department. He is entering his 54th year with Cal Fire and has served as the fire chief for going on 11 years. Chief Hawkins values leadership, fire and life safety and community involvement. He has been involved with the Riverside County Mountain Area Fire Safety Task Force since 2004. He served as the Cal Fire IC at the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County. The Cedar Fire is now the second largest but most destructive in California history.