Organizations looking to involve public more in future evacuation planning

Monday morning, Aug. 5, Bruce Barton, director of the Riverside County Emergency Management Department, convened a regular meeting of the agencies who respond on the hill in case of a disaster such as an earthquake, fire or flood. Photo by JP Crumrine

On Monday morning public safety officials gathered at the U.S. Forest Service’s Keenwild Ranger station for one of their meetings throughout the year. These meetings are specific to emergency situations. 

The officials discussed several topics related to the current fire season and future planning. One of the topics discussed: evacuation planning. Leading the discussion was Bruce Barton, director of Riverside County’s Emergency Management Department.

As the meeting began, Barton reiterated his position shared in July with the county Board of Supervisors. Barton maintains that tactical information should remain private and limited to the incident participants. This could include the number of children attending the local summer camps, staging areas and the availability of resources.

“We live in a world where bad people do bad things. They might plant secondary devices at these locations,” Barton commented on the need to withhold some information from the public. 

However, he also was adamant that past emergency plans, including evacuation, were written without taking the public into account.

Participants in the evacuation planning session Monday morning, Aug. 5. Participating agencies included the county’s Emergency Management Department, Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, Cal Fire, Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Idyllwild Fire Department. Photo by JP Crumrine

“We need to write plans with what the public should know and they have a right to know,” he stated. “The public is our partner and needs to be educated. We need to work with them and give them as much information as possible. It is not enough to have a plan, we need to communicate it.”

Barton’s office is beginning a revision of the local emergency and evacuation plan. He also suggested that further explanation be articulated at a potential community meeting later this month. Details are being worked out. 

This particular meeting began with highways 74 and 243 updates. Shane Massoud, Caltrans’s public information officer for maintenance, reported that the repaving of Highway 74 began last week and was continuing this week. Caltrans was still expecting to open Highway 74 with pilot car on a 24/7 basis beginning Labor Day weekend.

While repair is continuing on Highway 243, Caltrans is considering preventing public access until it can provide a full, unimpeded access. Massoud added that this is likely to occur next year.

Fire officials present at the Monday meeting concurred that utilizing the road has been seamless and that they encountered no problems using the roads when needed for an emergency this fire season.

“If there is an emergency, we’ll own that road [Highway 74],” averred Cal Fire Division Chief Bill Weiser.

Aware of the road conditions and limitations, fire and law enforcement officials have kept in close communication with the local summer camps. They want to keep apprised of the youth population and to ensure camps have arrangements for transportation, such as buses, off the hill in case an emergency were to occur.

Some of the other evacuation topics included the efforts to acquire, install and operate an emergency alert system on the entire hill, according to Barton. His office is seeking funds from the state to expand WNKI’s footprint and acquire sirens.

“It’s a good alternative to gain attention, but sirens do not give information,” Barton added. As a new system is installed, he articulated that an extensive public education campaign will be needed to explain its purpose and how to get alerts with specific information, such as listening to WNKI-AM 1610, RivCoReady or reverse 911 (visit to sign up).

Riverside Sheriff’s Lt. Al Campos and Weiser recommended that the sheriff’s door-to-door communication continue as part of the evacuation process.

Barton agreed and said, “We’ll use all the tools in the toolbox.”

Another critical issue briefly discussed was how to encourage residents to evacuate when it is ordered. Too many residents remain and that puts a strain on resources. Weiser estimated that perhaps only 20 to 25 percent of residents evacuate with the notice.

Ensuring the protection of those who stay can defer resources from fighting the actual fire, several officials said.

“While they believe they are assuming the risk for themselves, they can put others in danger if they need help,” said Forest Service Chief Mike Nobles.

While emergencies are unplanned and every fire is different, these public officials have organized and conducted more than a dozen successful evacuations in the county over the past decade. Two of these — the Mountain and Cranston fires — were in the past six years.

Joining Barton were representatives from Cal Fire, Idyllwild Fire Department, the U.S. Forest Service (the supervisor’s office and the local San Jacinto Ranger district), the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, the California Highway Patrol and Caltrans.