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What Goes In To The Decision To Evacuate?

Above: The Witch Fire, which started outside of Ramona in 2007, burned hundreds of structures and forced thousands of evacuations.

Aired 8/30/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

San Diegans will remember October 2007, when half a million people were evacuated during the devastating Witch Fire. We'll talk about what goes into a decision to evacuate, what are the downsides of a mass evacuation and what we should all have in our emergency kits at home.

Emergency Preparedness

The Red Cross has checklists for all different types of emergencies, from earthquakes to fires.

More than two million people along the Eastern Seaboard were evacuated last week in advance of Hurricane Irene. Just yesterday, people whose homes were in the path of the wildfire burning north of the Pala Indian Reservation were asked to evacuate. And of course, San Diegans will remember October 2007, when half a million people were evacuated during the devastating Witch fire. We'll talk about what goes into a decision to evacuate, what are the downsides of a mass evacuation and what we should all have in our evacuation/emergency kits at home?

Guests

Assistant San Diego County Sheriff Ed Prendergast

Andy McKellar, Director of Disaster Services for the San Diego Red Cross

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: A 300-acre wildfire in the Pala area is about 60% contained today. It started on Monday morning when a car hit a utility pole. About 600 firefighters have been battling the fire. Evacuation orders for those residence debts have been lifted and no structures were damaged. We will bring you the latest stories through the day right here on KPBS.

Our top story on Midday Edition is about evacuations. The Pala residents were asked to leave homes that were in the path of a wildfire. More than two million people along the eastern seaboard was evacuated last week in advance of Hurricane Irene. And San Diegans will remember October, 2007, when half a million people were evacuated during the devastating Witch fire. What were the down sides of a mass evacuation, and what should we all have in our evacuation emergency kits at home? I'd like to introduce my guests, San Diego County assistant Sheriff Ed Prendergast. And hello. Welcome to Midday Edition.

PRENDERGAST: Good afternoon.

CAVANAUGH: And Andy McKeller is here. He's director of disaster services for the San Diego Red Cross. Andy, hello.

MCKELLER: Hi.

CAVANAUGH: Let me start with you, assistant should have. Let me ask you first of all to give us an update on the Pala fire. Do we know when it might be fully contained?

PRENDERGAST: I do not. The sheriff's department still has a liaison at the incident command, but that is our only involvement at this point. We are no longer involved in any evacuations or any other Toyotas related to the fire.

CAVANAUGH: In San Diego, assistant sheriff, who makes the call about issuing an evacuation order?

PRENDERGAST: Well, typically that's the fire department that makes that decision. However, under circumstances, if deputies are out on patrol and see a fire they may be aware of the fire before the fire department is, and they can make the determination to evacuate folks.

CAVANAUGH: Most of the time we hear that people are being you remembered to evacuate. Why not make those orders mandatory?

PRENDERGAST: Typically, we like to get people moving early. So when we urge them to evacuate, we want to get them moving before it becomes a mandatory evacuation. So we just air on the side of caution to get people moving earlier.

CAVANAUGH: Let me follow up and ask you, what goes into the determination of a mandatory evacuation?

PRENDERGAST: Just the severity of the fire, the threats, the roads. There's a multitude of things we look at, how easy or difficult it will be to evacuate, the density of the population. So there's tons of issues, and it's not the sheriff's department that's making that determination, but typically it's a unified command, the fire department and the sheriff's department working together on that.

CAVANAUGH: Andy McKeller, as Director of Disaster Services for the San Diego Red Cross, I'm wondering what were your thoughts when you heard about the mass evacuations for Hurricane Irene?

MCKELLER: Well, it was good to be out in front of it. It's one of those situations where you really don't know what you're facing until you're facing it. It sounds kind of simple to soy that. But you don't know if it's going to track -- hold to the track that that the forecasters have planned for it. Did the hurricane actually read that plan or not? So you want to be in front of that, out in front and having your stuff in place, ready to go, and evacuate early. As the sheriff was saying, go early. Don't wait till the very last minute.

CAVANAUGH: A lot of people are second-guessing that mas evacuation on the east coast now. And I'm wondering, is it hard to get people motivated to evacuate when things don't turn out as devastating as they might have?

MCKELLER: Certainly. There's the cry wolf effect. They told us it was going to be awful. It wasn't awful. So I'm going to stay this time. And that next time it may truly be awful. Of the so yeah, there is a wearing. And I think the more it's built up, and the les effect it truly has, the worse that effect is.

CAVANAUGH: And I would imagine the media plays into that on both sides. You need the media to get the word out. But on the other hand, things can be sensationalized.

MCKELLER: Very much so. You'll often see a TV reporter standing in front of wreckage, where if they would back the camera up a little bit, maybe you would see it's one garage on a whole block. And people know that. In the back of their head, they understand it. So they take it with a grain of salt. So the next time that warning comes out, they're less likely to pay close attention it.

CAVANAUGH: Andy, how closely does the red cross work on local evacuations? How do you get-together?

MCKELLER: Most certainly. I spend a lot of time in planning meetings. We often joke among the emergency response agencies, we see each other more than our own families. We're very close to the county office of emergency services, the sheriff's department, and all the fire departments within the county. We're part of a group called VOAD, the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. Those are all the voluntary agencies. So there's planning all the way around, and we're very much a part of that.

CAVANAUGH: And what are you responsible for? Are you responsible for finding evacuation centers? Preparing them? What -- or all of the above of?

MCKELLER: Well, we have agreements with a lot of the school district, faith based organizations, community centers around the county, this county and Imperial County, actually. And we hold those in readiness, should we need to use a building, I particular building. We don't decide what buildings are going to be used as a shelter, we work in conjunction with fire or sheriff's department as to which would be the best and the safest location to open up. So we have those in our back pocket, and we have contacts with each of them, and we'll make the proper phone calls, we'll make the arranges, we set all that up, but again only in conjunction with the fire and law enforcement services.

CAVANAUGH: Assistant sheriff Prendergast, aside from the cry wolf aspect of being very careful about when you call for an evacuation, there are also some problems that are just attendant upon mass evacuations. Can you tell us what they are?

PRENDERGAST: One of the things is we have to tell people where to go. And sometimes we don't have our evacuations set up, evacuation centers set up beforehand when an emerging crisis like a fire. So we have temporary evacuation points. Those things have to be designated quickly. You have to figure out how people are going to get there because we don't want the roads to get jammed. Oftentimes people do not prepare beforehand so their vehicles don't have gasoline. Sometimes people don't know alternate routes from their homes. So there are things that the public can do to better prepare themselves so that when they do get the call that they're just ready to move. They should have -- know the routes and the alternate routes to and from their homes.

CAVANAUGH: And isn't there perhaps an element of panic?

PRENDERGAST: We haven't seen, really, the public panic. Of it's really sometimes they just don't know where to go, and that's quite understandable. You know when a fire is bearing down on your community, it's hard to know what to do. That's why preparation is just so important. Having a plan, discussing a plan request your family, and then practicing the plan.

CAVANAUGH: And it's come to mind, I was reading some articles about evacuations themselves carrying some risk for people. Nothing has been reported coming out of Hurricane Irene's mass evacuations. But they did evacuate hospitals, they evacuated nursing homes, fragile people, and as we've been saying it didn't really pan out to be the massive kind of disaster they were fearing. Isn't that putting people at risk?

PRENDERGAST: None of us has a crystal ball. And certainly there are risks involved in all our behavior. I think what we try to do in public safety is look at the totality of the circumstances and make a well educated guess on what would be the most prudent thing to do, taking into account all those, fas and the people that may be, you know, be homebound people that have risk factor it is such as being in hospitals, all of that is part of the equation when we make a decision to evacuate.

CAVANAUGH: I want to get your take on that, Andy too.

MCKELLER: As the sheriff was saying, certainly there is a risk attendant in everything that we do, but the flip side of that is the alternate consequence is almost too horrible to contemplate. We would rather have people moving away from the danger of the fire rather than waiting and seeing. You need to error on the side of caution every time.

CAVANAUGH: We're talking about evacuations. Now, assistant sheriff, in 2007, people were told to evacuate to Qualcomm stadium. Many people. Most of the evacuees during the Witch fire. Would that still probably be the evacuation center if we had another mass evacuation?

PRENDERGAST: That would probably still be one of many evacuation centers in. In the 2007 fires, we evacuated over 500,000 people county wide which was the largest evacuation in the state history. We have many evacuation points, pre-designated, and we also have back up evacuation points. It all will depend where the fire is occurring, what time of day, and what the threats are from the fire.

CAVANAUGH: What are some of the other big evacuation center, Andy?

TINKSY: We've got a list of those. And we kind of hold that list tight to our vest a bit. The reason for that is public safety. You'll notice in hurricane country, they will publish that list freely of centers for hushes. For us, we face a different kind of disaster. Fires move very, very quickly, and you can't predict where they're going to go. We don't publicize the list of possible shelter locations only because we don't know if that particular location is going to be in the path of a fire or if it's going to be damaged by an earthquake. We publish that list folks tend to see it as oh, it's been announced this is a safe place to go. And it may or may not be. So we tend to make those decisions based on which direction is the five moving, how fast is the fire moving. If an earthquake, the building needs to be inspected first. We won't enter a building until that time. So that's a lot of different factors as opposed to the tornados and hushes they face in the east and south.

CAVANAUGH: What about pets during an evacuation? We all learned from Katrina that that can be an obstacle to people leaving their homes.

TINKSY: Absolutely. We all love our pets, and I think every family should have a plan for the pets. It's important to prepare. If you have horses, you should have a horse trailer and a vehicle to pull it and you should get out early before the roads get crowded. I think everybody should have a plan to get out and take their pets with them.

CAVANAUGH: And when they get to an evacuation center, what happens to the pets then?

PRENDERGAST: That's a good question. Maybe Andy could answer that question.

MCKELLER: Sure. We work very closely with county animal services. They are tasked with setting up the pet shelters. And we set those up as closely as we can to the human shelters. Obviously pets are members of the family. People don't want to leave them behind. So we want to make sure that they have a really good place, a safe place to go. And it's actually kind of easier for us to get supply it is and things for the pets. People really give freely to dogs and cats. It's a good situation for them. They always seem to come out really, really well at the end of it. And we also have agreements with humane society people to staff that. Also folks from Petco often will come by, and any other chains of pet supply stores and they'll help out. It turns out very, very well for the pets.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you both, starting with Andy, how do you make an evacuation plan? What should did into that?

MCKELLER: Oh, a lot of things. First is contact information. If you're working in an office, does your family know how to reach you in that office? Do you know how to reach your family all the time? In the day of cellphones now, it's a lot easier than it used to be. Do you know how to get ahold of your boss if you're away from work when a disaster happens? Can you get ahold of your supervisor to let them know that you're not coming in, that you're okay. Do you have a contact outside of the affected area? That's an important one that everybody knows so if your family is separated, they can all call the grandmother in Michigan to say, yeah, we're all right. And she's the point of contact. 'Cause oftentimes, you can get outside the area, but phone calls in the affected area are almost impossible. Text messaging is another way that it gets through quite often or, mail when the phones don't work.

CAVANAUGH: That just brings in the point. Social media. That wasn't available for most people during the 2007 wildfires. How has that changed the picture of notification and keeping in contact and up-to-date on where the fire is and how people are?

MCKELLER: You have to be obviously very careful about what you're looking at. There's a lot of misinformation even before social media was as big as it is. A lot of rumor, a lot of misinformation. And now it's just that sort of amplified. So you want to be sure of your source. Ground the information. Make sure it's correct before you do anything based on what you're seeing there. But it can be very, very helpful to get the word out quickly to a wide range of folks.

CAVANAUGH: Assistant sheriff, we're almost out of time. I would imagine there is some place that the county provides that people can check and learn how to make an emergency check list or something along those lines.

PRENDERGAST: Yes. The office of emergency services as a website that's very good. And it has all sorts of great information on emergency preparedness. And they can find that at sdcounty.ca.gov/oes.

CAVANAUGH: And the red cross must have tip it is as well, Andy.

MCKELLER: Sure, our website is sd.arc.org.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you both very much. I think this has been very enlightening. San Diego County Assistant Sheriff Ed Prendergast, and Andy McKeller with the San Diego County Red Cross. Thank you both.

MCKELLER: Thank you.

PRENDERGAST: You're welcome. Thank you.

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