Coordinating evacuations key to fire plan
The 2019-2020 Marin County Civil Grand Jury has a commonsense recommendation for Marin officials.
When it comes to emergency evacuations, it’s time to get your acts together.
For years, fire officials have been urging local homeowners to establish evacuation routes — safe ways for family members to get out of their houses and to a safer spot in case of a fire or a damaging landslide or earthquake.
But, according to the grand jury’s recent report, local municipalities and public agencies haven’t taken the same advice.
Given Marin’s geography and how it has developed since 1900, there are widespread choke points that could prove to be life-threatening hazards in the case of large evacuations.
Just imagine a wildland fire burning westward toward Fairfax and officials calling for evacuation of the town. Just imagine people trying to escape in their cars down the narrow winding roads of Fairfax’s hillside neighborhoods. Just imagine the traffic jam on eastbound Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.
Just think of fire engines trying to get through this traffic to help fight and stop the fire. Their delay could cost them precious time in their attempt to save homes and lives. The same scenario could play out in Mill Valley, San Anselmo, San Rafael and other areas across the county.
The grand jury looked into the problem and interviewed dozens of officials. It concluded that the responsibility for addressing the “critical need” of planning for improved evacuation routes and enacting those plans “is not clear.”
That’s far from reassuring.
The grand jury concluded: “The dire consequences of failing to address this challenge could result in a catastrophe that far outweighs the cost of improving our roads to support mass evacuation.”
Last year, Marin voters recognized the real threat of a wildland fire in our county and approved a tax to establish the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority. Its promise, both on the ballot and in its campaign material, was to improve evacuation routes and procedures.
The newly formed authority is working on such improvements, but it lacks the authority to make them a reality. That authority rests with the county and other Marin municipalities. It also could require funding from the Transportation Authority of Marin.
However, all of these agencies are expecting the others to take the lead.
Besides, they told the grand jury, local citizens “are not demanding action on the inevitable, and possibly lethal road congestion that will occur in the event of a mass evacuation.”
The citizen members of the grand jury are doing just that.
It is recommending that municipalities, the fire board and TAM all make improving safe evacuation routes a top priority. Improving or maintaining safe evacuation should be a priority in planning future building and development.
The state has made this a requirement for local general plans, but so far only Belvedere, Mill Valley and Novato have complied with this standard. The grand jury urges all Marin municipalities to amend their general plans to meet the requirement.
It also urges the new fire authority and TAM to require mutual coordination in planning so that evacuation routes become a higher priority for funding. Someone has to own the issue.
That makes a lot of sense.
Each authority’s board includes representatives from Marin’s municipalities who should make sure that that work is brought home to their own jurisdictions.
The threat is too real.
The risk is too obvious.
It also is easy to enact the grand jury’s commonsense recommendations.
The grand jury has held up a mirror to the current risk and problems and has presented a clear picture of needed improvements, both in better planning and traffic improvements. Some may be easier to accomplish than others.
But they all should be clearly spelled out and put on the public table as priorities as officials make decisions regarding future planning and building.