If fire strikes the Russian River area, how will people get out? – Sonoma West

Fire and emergency responders met with nearly 100 lower Russian River residents last Saturday to talk about evacuation options if and when a wildfire threatens the wooded west county.

“We need to do much more before the emergency,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville told an audience gathered in the Guerneville School gym. “The more we do before, the better off we’ll be.”

Discussion focused on escape routes for the woodsy lower river neighborhoods often served by narrow, steep and winding roads. Maps of the west county’s geographically separate enclaves such as Rio Nido, Monte Rio and Guernewood Park showed evacuation routes to River Road, Highway 116 or Bohemian Highway, the only roads in and out of the lower river.

The maps included a one-page guide to emergency and evacuation preparedness advisories and a list of disaster supplies and resources that residents should have, including emergency phone numbers and websites.

The maps are “a work in progress,” said Turbeville, who asked for suggestions or corrections.

Self-reliance, preparedness and good communication were overarching themes at the meeting attend by Fifth District County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins and several emergency response officials.

Veteran Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman, one of the speakers, agreed that advance planning and self-reliance should be key priorities for lower river residents. Baxman said that in the event of a wildfire with the magnitude of October’s Santa Rosa firestorm, “we can make all the plans in the world but it will be every man woman and child for themselves.”

Residents need to familiarize themselves with local routes out of their neighborhoods, and be prepared to be on their own during a disaster with a supply of essential backup items such as water and food, medicine, batteries, cash, pet supplies and spare eyeglasses.

“The message we have today is empower yourself,” said the sheriff department’s Community Engagement Liaison Misti Harris.

Harris also urged residents to sign up for SoCoAlert, the Sonoma County emergency notification service that will contact users by telephone, mobile phone, text message, email, and social media regarding time-sensitive, geographically specific emergency notifications.

“Any message regarding dangerous conditions or immediate threat to personal safety or property will be sent using SoCoAlert,” says the county’s SoCoAlert website. “These may include evacuation notifications, shelter-in-place, boil water advisories, tsunami warnings, and flood warnings.”

Firefighters and elected directors from the Russian River, Forestville, Monte Rio and Cazadero fire protection districts helped organize the evacuation planning session. A follow-up meeting is scheduled for Jan. 20, also at Guerneville School starting at 1 p.m.

The last major west county fire disaster, the Creighton Ridge fire, broke out in Cazadero in late summer 1978. The 13,000-acre fire was caused by a resident using a power grass mower.

In September 1923, a windswept fire that started near Guerneville burned to the Pacific Ocean in three hours, according to a county wildfire protection report.

On Labor Day weekend in 1961, two small fires, believed set by arsonists about a quarter mile apart at the end of Watson Road, were fueled by winds and raced toward Guerneville, a mile to the south, said the county report. The fire burned 5,769 acres and 18 residences.

“Though in general the redwood ecosystem that dominates the lower Russian River area is not particularly fire-prone, increasing understory and the effects of Sudden Oak Death, which has killed thousands of oaks and tanoaks in the area, are adding to the potential for wildfire,” according to a Sonoma County Community Wildfire Protection report completed two years ago. In the event of a large fire, “these areas would present difficulties for safe evacuation and access for firefighters.”