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Jun 09 2014

The Dangers of Traffic Gridlock during wildfire evacuations in San Diego

Published by at 6:57 pm under Uncategorized

Cocos Fire from OlivenhainThe most remarkable aspect of the 2007 Wildfire evacuations of San Diego was how orderly everything was. Drivers seemed to be more polite with each other than normal.  Talk to someone who has been through a wildfire evacuation and they will likely have some stories to tell about community cooperation, a sense of pulling together. For example, in the May, 2014 fires, the Helen Woodward Animal shelter put out a request for horse trailers to move their horses to safety, and were immediately met with a flood of volunteers with horse trailers. The San Diego Union Tribune (June 7: Cocos Fire Jam to be evaluated) quoted a San Elijo resident about his experiences trying to evacuate during the recent Cocos fire.

Longtime resident Dustin Smith said he packed up his pets and headed off about 4:15 p.m., but couldn’t leave his gated Promontory Ridge community. In front of him was a line of vehicles backed up even before the gate…. He said he gave up, tried again an hour later but found the same situation. Tried again shortly after 6 p.m. and finally found roads clear enough to leave.

Being blocked from leaving your home for 2 hours under any circumstances is a really bad thing, but it is particularly terrifying when there is a wildfire raging nearby, and you don’t know where it will go. My daughter was evacuated earlier in the day from her office at the corner of El Camino Real and Palomar Airport road.  Traffic on the road was so bad that it took her 30 minutes just to get out of her parking lot.  She call 911 to see if they could get some traffic control police to help, but the dispatcher just said, “sorry, all of our officers are busy with other aspects of the fire.” Google Maps traffic reporting was very helpful, and gave citizens a great way to see what was happen and adapt to the traffic flow dynamically.  For example, my wife and I were babysitting our grandchildren May 14th, and I was driving to our normal rendezvous with my son-in-law for a 4:00 handoff in San Marcos.  I was planning on driving over San Elijo road to Twin Oaks, when I got a call from him, saying he saw a fire starting near Twin Oaks (that would become the Cocos fire).   We both knew that this could block the road, and could cause havoc with the traffic flow between us.  So, we both turned around and went home, watching the fire expand, but also noticing that the traffic on Del Dios highway was clear on Google Maps.  My daughter came by around 8 that night, and we had an uneventful handoff. Unfortunately, the past few decades have seen an upsurge in NIMBY activists who fight roads in their area, creating a patchwork of unconnected roads with long cul-de-sacs. Perhaps the risk of traffic gridlock might reverse some of these attitudes, or at least give fire safety folks a stronger position from which to demand better ingress and egress for fire safety.

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