Evacuation Drill In Fitch Mountain Prepares Residents For Fire Season
Rhonda Bellmer has lived on Fitch Mountain for a little over a decade now. On the day of the drill, I go to meet her at her home. We stand on her back porch under towering redwood trees and watch kayakers pass by on the Russian River just down the hill from her house.
She explains why she loves Fitch Mountain, “You've got nature, you've got so many beautiful trees and the river. And you're six minutes from town.”
Fitch Mountain is just east of Healdsburg. In the mid-1900s San Franciscans vacationed here in summer cabins. Now, plenty of houses are short-term rentals, but more than 300 people live here full-time. Rhonda graduated from Sonoma State University in the '70s and never left the county. She moved to Fitch Mountain in part because it’s so beautiful. But it’s complicated. Rhonda says that she acknowledges the risks of wildfires that have become part of living in places like Fitch Mountain that are on the edge of wild and urban land in Northern California. “I've lived all over this county. Now, at this point in time, five of the houses that I've lived in have burned,” she says.
The looming threat of fire is why Rhonda joined a local emergency preparedness organization, and registered for the evacuation drill taking place on the day I visit her.
“I've gotten an alert. We're having an evacuation ... right now. I need to get ready.”Rhonda Bellmer, Fitch Mountain resident
The county says the goal of these drills is to make future evacuations safer and faster. Neighbors practice quickly getting what they need and getting out and the county tests alert systems in places where hills might block their signal. The county told her the drill at Fitch Mountain would happen today. But not exactly when. So we sit down to have coffee at a wooden table in her kitchen. A few minutes later her phone pings.
She gets up to check it. “Okay,” she says, “I've gotten an alert. We're having an evacuation...right now. I need to get ready.”
Out the door
Rhonda snaps into action. I follow her as she rushes down the hall to her bedroom, abandoning our coffee on the table. By the time I get to her room, she’s already pulled a suitcase from her closet and thrown it open on the bed. “Suitcase ready to go,” she says. “I now keep it in the closet. And I can throw anything in it, like this — this is special jewelry, and it’s going in right now. I have clothing, warmth, a toiletry bag, and that's that.” She zips up the bag.
Rhonda rolls her suitcase back down the hall towards the front door. She sits down on a bench by the front door and quickly switches out her flip flops for sturdy walking boots. She pulls a big green bag from under the bench. This is her "Go Bag."
“The 'Go Bag' has all of your essential, important information,” she explains.
Inside are her children’s birth certificates, her deed to her house, other documents, cash and a credit card. She pulls the "Go Bag" over her shoulder and heads out the front door towards the carport, her suitcase rolling through the gravel behind her.
At the car, Rhonda opens her trunk and tosses in her bags. There’s a red backpack already in the car with survival equipment. It has “food, water mask, goggles, kerchiefs, and my radio,” she tells me. She keeps that in the car at all times.
Next she goes to a closet in the carport and pulls out her cat carrier, and a box of cat litter and food. She used to keep this stuff in her basement but now she keeps it in the carport so it’s easier to grab in case of an evacuation.
“Now, I've got to get my cat,” she says.
This is when she would get her cat, if this were a real evacuation. But Rhonda says it’s too traumatic to put the cat through the drill. So for today, she puts a stuffed animal in the cat carrier.
Then she goes to the post at the entrance to the carport and pulls a white tag out of her pocket with the word “evacuated” printed in bold red letters across the front. She ties it to the post. She explains that people put these tags up so when the county is doing door to door checks, they know who's left already and can quickly find the people who need help evacuating.
Into the car
Soon we begin to hear a Hi-Lo siren sounding in the distance. Rhonda says it’s time to go. We get into her car and as we pull out, she asks me if I noticed that her car was backed in.
I didn’t and she explains “the idea with that is if you have to get away fast, it's best to have your eyes on the road. And so when fire season starts, which is now in May, we start backing in.”
At the end of the street, we enter a line of cars slowly making their way off the mountain. Sirens fill the air and Rhonda’s voice begins to shake. She has six friends who have lost their homes in wildfires over the last two years. She says the sound of the sirens take her back to the other times she’s evacuated.
After a moment, she says that the point of drills is to practice. To get the most out of it you really have to envision what would be happening if the land around the road was inflamed. She describes different methods of escape and what she might do if the road was blocked and she had to get out of her car. She says people often think of going to the river.
“But we've been taught that smoke settles down on the river,” she explains. “During the Tubbs, some people got trapped in a swimming pool for hours. And they would have to go up and get tiny little bits of air and then go underwater because the air above the pool was so hot.”
She says it’s instinctual to go to water, but it’s not always the best option.
We move slowly down the road off of Fitch Mountain and into Healdsburg. Cars stretch down the road ahead of and behind us. Rhonda recognizes some of her neighbors in the mine behind us. But other than the line of cars, it’s a normal Saturday in Healdsburg. The sun is shining and people walking dogs pass by on the sidewalk. They eye the river of cars coming down from Fitch Mountain.
Looking around, Rhonda says if this were a real evacuation, “all of these Healdsburg streets would be feeding into us.” She explains that when she evacuated the year before last, the roads were so crowded it took her “five hours to get from Santa Rosa to San Francisco.” This drill doesn’t simulate that.
We drive to the Healdsburg Community Center, which is serving as a temporary evacuation center during today’s drill. During past wildfires, Rhonda tells me, this was a real evacuation center. The cars snake into the parking lot. A park ranger waves our car forward and directs us to a parking spot. We park, and Rhonda feels around for her phone. “Did I grab my phone?” she asks aloud. “I did not ... isn’t that interesting.” She says she must have forgotten in the rush to get out of the house.
Before we get out of the car, Rhonda fills out a survey about the drill that the park ranger handed her as we pulled in. She notes things she forgot, like her phone and her special box of treasures.
“The treasure box,” she explains, “is just mostly the photographs I used to have all over my house. It's kind of sad. I haven't put them all back ... I guess someday I'll take them back out again. But I boxed them up three times.” She says she became tired of unboxing and re-boxing, so now, she just leaves them packed up.
“We did one of these evacuation exercises in Mill Creek a few years ago. We got back, we talked about what we learned. And then, that place got burnt.”James Gore, Sonoma County Supervisor, District 4
The county has organized an information fair at the back of the community center, and red and white tents dot the plaza. After Rhonda finishes the survey, she and I get out of the car and head towards the fair.
When we arrive, James Gore, the Sonoma County Supervisor who represents Fitch Mountain, is addressing the crowd from the steps behind the center. He describes how important drills like today’s have been in the past.
“We did one of these evacuation exercises in Mill Creek a few years ago. We got back, we talked about what we learned. And then, that place got burnt.” He says people lost their homes, but there was no loss of life.
He says “everybody was prepared.”
After the speakers conclude, the crowd of drill evacuees begin to mill around the different tents. One is organized by Citizens Organized and Prepared for Emergencies (COPE). It’s the local group that Rhonda is a part of. They worked alongside the Fire Department and the Department of Emergency Management to organize today’s drill and help sign-up their neighbors to participate.
Officials are also there and in the crowd I catch up with Richard Diaz, the Deputy Emergency Services Coordinator for Sonoma’s Department of Emergency Management. He tells me that more drills are planned in other vulnerable areas of Sonoma County — places like Fitch Mountain that are on the boundary of wild and urban land and only have one road in or out.
But for now, he says today’s drill was a success. He says 125 participants registered to participate and everyone showed up at the temporary evacuation center.
“People really took this seriously,” he says. He also tells me that during the drill, the county was able to test its notification systems and they worked — people got the alerts the county sent out without a problem.
“It's like you're studying for an exam. The benefit is in what you're doing to prepare for it.”Rhonda Bellmer, Fitch Mountain resident
There isn’t much hard data on how evacuation drills affect the outcomes of real evacuations, though some people are looking for ways to solve that. In Sonoma, officials say the county doesn’t track how people who do these drills fare in real wildfires down the line. But, they say that people tell them the drills are helpful.
Rhonda says the drill was ultimately helpful for her because it helped her find flaws in her own evacuation planning.
“It's like you're studying for an exam,” she explains, “the benefit is in what you're doing to prepare for it.” It’s helpful, she says, “Even though it's not exactly like an emergency.”