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Emergency Preparedness 2018
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Emergency Preparedness: When It Comes to Evacuations, Be Ready Before Disaster Strikes

Key issues include getting emergency alerts, knowing evacuation routes, and having shelter and communication plans

Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies and Search and Rescue team members tell Montecito residents to leave the area ahead of the Jan. 9 storm. Debris flows from heavy rainfall subsequently killed 23 people and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes. Click to view larger
Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies and Search and Rescue team members tell Montecito residents to leave the area ahead of the Jan. 9 storm. Debris flows from heavy rainfall subsequently killed 23 people and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes.  (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Evacuations are common for wildfires in Santa Barbara County and elsewhere, but the last two months have been unprecedented in terms of the size and length of mandatory evacuation zones for the Thomas Fire and Montecito mud and debris flows.

Thousands of people were displaced for long stretches in December and January, and it had a domino effect on daily routines and commerce all over the region.

The specific threat of post-wildfire debris flows is not over — for communities below the Thomas Fire burn area or the recent Sherpa, Whittier and Alamo fires. So much of the local watershed burned that winter storms will be dangerous for years to come.

And while most of California got enough rain to pull itself out of drought last year, Santa Barbara County did not, and a year-round wildfire season is now a reality.

With that in mind, here is a guide to preparing for evacuations, and evacuating.

How to Prepare for Evacuation

FEMA’s ready.gov, Southern California’s Ready! Set! Go! program and Santa Barbara County’s Aware & Prepare initiative all have one message: Be ready for disaster before it happens.

Key issues to think about are how to get emergency alerts and warnings, making a shelter plan, picking an evacuation route, and developing a communication plan.

UC Santa Barbara hosted a Red Cross evacuation shelter during the Thomas Fire. Click to view larger
UC Santa Barbara hosted a Red Cross evacuation shelter during the Thomas Fire.  (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Prepare a “go bag” if you have to evacuate on foot (with water, food, important documents and other essentials), and an emergency supply kit for your home, workplace and vehicle.

People should prepare to be self-sufficient for three to five days after a disaster, whether sheltering in place or evacuating.

Click here for more information on recommended items for disaster supply kits.

In the case of the Jan. 9 Montecito mudslides, people were cut off from ground rescue efforts and had no utilities – no water, no power, no gas, no internet.

Cell phones and radios were information lifelines for many, so backup power systems and car phone chargers should also be part of any emergency kit.

They’re also helpful during an extended blackout, like the Dec. 4 one that put the entire South Coast and western Ventura County in the dark the night the Thomas Fire started.

Before disaster strikes, develop a family/household communication and re-unification plan so you can maintain contact with friends and family and find each other if separated.

Have out-of-area contacts, as well as meeting spots in town and out of the area, in case you can’t get home, FEMA suggests in its guide to making a communication plan.  

The Thomas Fire was the largest blaze in modern California history and displaced communities throughout Ventura and Santa Barbara counties as it burned west, seen here in Romero Canyon in Montecito on Dec. 12. Click to view larger
The Thomas Fire was the largest blaze in modern California history and displaced communities throughout Ventura and Santa Barbara counties as it burned west, seen here in Romero Canyon in Montecito on Dec. 12.  (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk photo)

Text if you can, instead of calling, to conserve battery power and minimize congestion on cell networks, the Federal Communications Commission recommends.

Plan evacuation routes and know where you are heading for shelter, whether an evacuation shelter or a friend’s house. Disaster preparedness guides recommend having places to stay in multiple directions in case one is cut off, which is good advice since Highway 101 is vulnerable to being closed during fires and floods.

The Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management and local cities coordinate with the American Red Cross and other entities to open evacuation shelters, usually at a high school, ahead of and during disasters. The shelters provide cots, food, water, restrooms and some services.

County-run animal shelters accept pets to shelter during evacuations, and the Earl Warren Showgrounds accepted large animals – horses, sheep, goats, etc. – during recent wildfires, as did the Elks Rodeo in Santa Maria.

How to Stay Informed and Know When to Leave

Southern California’s Ready! Set! Go! program educates people about safely evacuating in wildfires and other emergencies, and the Ready! portion is all about preparedness with disaster kits and plans for communication, where to shelter and what evacuation route to use.

Set! is about monitoring weather and fire activity, and preparing to evacuate.

Sheriff’s deputies respond to Carpinteria to tell people to evacuate during the Thomas Fire, which lit up the sky on the night of Dec. 8. Click to view larger
Sheriff’s deputies respond to Carpinteria to tell people to evacuate during the Thomas Fire, which lit up the sky on the night of Dec. 8.  (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Go! advises people to evacuate early, when directed to.  

Watching the weather and signing up for local alerts are ways to stay up-to-date with hazards and emergency information.

Santa Barbara County’s Office of Emergency Management sends out notices of evacuation orders and warnings (and other emergency and weather information) through Aware & Prepare, Nixle and other systems.

Residents can sign up for Aware & Prepare here and for Nixle here or by texting your zip code to 888777.

Nixle alerts are available in English and Spanish, but Aware & Prepare alerts are English-only.  

The Thomas Fire burns in the hills above Montecito’s Upper Village, as seen on Dec. 16. Click to view larger
The Thomas Fire burns in the hills above Montecito’s Upper Village, as seen on Dec. 16.  (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

The Nixle alerts are “also completely anonymous, which has benefits for segments of the population that want to remain anonymous but still need to receive emergency notifications and alerts,” said Brian Uhl, emergency services manager at the Office of Emergency Management.

As of early February, 41,455 people were signed up for Aware & Prepare alerts and 40,702 were registered for Nixle alerts, he said.

It’s a huge spike from last year, when the county reported only 7,000 people signed up for Aware & Prepare alerts – of course, that was before the Whittier Fire, Alamo Fire, Thomas Fire and Montecito mudslides.

Santa Barbara County, and departments including the Office of Emergency Management, also post evacuation orders, weather alerts, and other incident updates on their social media pages.

Other local alert systems available include:

City of Goleta

City of Santa Maria

Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department (Nixle)

Santa Maria Police Department (Nixle)

National Weather Service

Radio Ready stations

When you leave to evacuate, grab family members, pets, important documents and valuables, if you have time.

Montecito residents rescued from their homes are taken to the Vons shopping center on Coast Village Road Jan. 9. Evacuation orders were only issued for areas above Highway 192 and most residents decided not to leave ahead of the storm. Click to view larger
Montecito residents rescued from their homes are taken to the Vons shopping center on Coast Village Road Jan. 9. Evacuation orders were only issued for areas above Highway 192 and most residents decided not to leave ahead of the storm.  (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Other suggestions include leaving a note and contacting people to let them know where you are going; wear sturdy shoes, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt; check with neighbors; close and lock doors and windows, and unplug electrical equipment.

In the case of a storm, people evacuating need to be on the lookout for flooded roads, washed-out bridges and downed power lines.

Who Makes Evacuation Decisions and Sends Alerts

Ahead of the Jan. 9 storm that devastated Montecito, the county’s evacuation alerts conflicted with the interactive map, specifically in one of the most heavily-damaged areas: Hot Springs/Olive Mill Road in Montecito.

The voluntary evacuation warning was issued for areas “east of Hot Springs Road/Olive Mill Road,” the email said, while the map clearly showed the zone farther west, including Coast Village Road.

Residents in flood plains, below Highway 192, were given evacuation warnings, not mandatory orders, despite the fact Santa Barbara County officials said previously that those areas had a high risk of flooding.

Another issue was that most people who were told to leave chose not to.

In the case of the Thomas Fire and Jan. 9 storm, officials issued multiple evacuation orders, which are mandatory, and evacuation warnings, which are voluntary.

If there’s time, deputies go door-to-door notifying people to leave mandatory evacuation areas.  

Horses evacuated during the Thomas Fire are housed at Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara, which frequently acts as a shelter for large animals during wildfires and other disasters. Click to view larger
Horses evacuated during the Thomas Fire are housed at Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara, which frequently acts as a shelter for large animals during wildfires and other disasters.  (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

People cannot be forced to leave, but can be stopped from going into the area. For recent evacuations in the Montecito area, law enforcement staffed road blocks to keep people out of the area.  

Evacuation warnings are issued for areas where people should be ready to evacuate immediately, according to the county.

People do not need to wait for an evacuation order to leave, and should evacuate immediately if they feel threatened.

Ordering evacuations is a group discussion but the ultimate decision belongs to law enforcement – the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office in the case of the Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flows.

All the agencies, organizations and departments in the Santa Barbara County operational area are involved in evacuation discussions, Uhl said.

The operational area includes all political entities within the county, including county departments, cities, towns and special districts.

Santa Barbara County’s Office of Emergency Management sends out notices of evacuation orders and warnings (and other emergency and weather information) through Aware & Prepare, Nixle and other systems.

Evacuations during wildfires are not uncommon in Santa Barbara County, but they tend to be in less-populated, rural areas.

The language for evacuation alerts gets more confusing for neighborhoods, like this message which was one of seven alerts sent out the morning of Dec. 16 during the Thomas Fire:

"A Voluntary Evacuation Warning has been issued for parts of Santa Barbara City due to the Thomas Fire. This includes the area from Constance/Alameda Padre Serra/South Salinas on the north and east, Highway 101 on the south, and West Mission Street to State Street on the west. Be prepared to leave."

The county created an interactive map on its website to show evacuations in urban areas during the Thomas Fire and Jan. 9 storm. However, the map itself was not included in alert messages, which directed people to go to the county website and look at the map.

Planning to Evacuate with Pets

The Santa Barbara County Animal Services helped rescue more than 1,000 pets from the Montecito disaster area and hosted all sorts of animals – from dogs to poisonous dart frogs – at its shelters.

Staff also fed and provided medical care to pets sheltering in place, rescued lost animals, reunited owners with pets, and removed deceased pets from the affected area.

Read the department’s guide for Disaster Planning for Pets here.

Read the Ready.gov guide to evacuation planning for animals here.

Animal Services establishes a hotline for pet and animal-related information during emergencies, and its shelters are located at: 5473 Overpass Road in Goleta; 1501 West Central Ave. in Lompoc; and 548 W. Foster Road in Santa Maria.

Community outreach coordinator Jennifer Adame has additional tips for people.

Question: What specific documents should people have to drop off and pick up pets from county animal shelters?

Adame: Bringing along important documents like the pet’s vaccination history is helpful. If it is not available we will attempt to contact the veterinarian or reissue the vaccinations. Owner identification is required when an owner picks up a pet from the shelter. We will not release the animal to anyone other than the owner unless we have consent.

Question: What animals are and are not accepted at county animal shelters during evacuations?

Adame: All animals are accepted and we will get creative for housing if needed. For exotic animals we may ask the owner if they can come in to provide daily care or make other arrangements (like the poisonous dart frogs).

Question: If people can’t take their pets with them, how should they leave them?

Adame: If pets must be left behind, it is best to leave them with adequate food and water and contact Animal Services as soon as possible. In most situations letting the animal loose can pose more of a safety risk than help so we recommend keeping the animal contained in a home, coop, paddock, etc.

Question: Are there limits for rescuing and feeding animals left behind in evacuation areas?   

Adame: We will attempt to rescue any animal in need. We will assess each situation for safety for our team members as well as the animal. We will not put our people in an unsafe situation to feed or rescue an animal. If we do not readily have the resources, we will procure them in order to provide for the animals in our county.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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