Could Lakehills be the next Oakland Hills?
A large-scale fire drill will be conducted in the Lakehills neighborhood on Saturday, June 9, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. A couple hundred firefighters will hone their skills in a series of challenging, real-world situation drills. Dozens of apparatus will buzz around the neighborhood and, unlike past exercises, this drill includes an evacuation component.
An estimated 200 residents will receive reverse-911 calls Saturday morning between 8:15 and 9 a.m., inviting them to evacuate as part of the exercise.
A May 15 meeting at Lake Forest Elementary School outlined the fire danger the residents face, and the specifics of the training and evacuation drill. Roughly 80 residents turned out. Most were suitably concerned about the potential fire threat to their homes.
The homes in Lakehills date back to the 1960s and 1970s, long before neighboring developments went up. The Folsom Lake shoreline forms a meandering northern, western and, more critically, up-wind border. The Waterford neighborhood is due south. Most of Lakehills is nestled between Francisco Drive and Lakehills Drive, both of which will remain open with traffic controls in place Saturday morning.
Those willing to participate in the evacuation drill will lock their homes and depart for a couple of hours. A Red Cross evacuation center will be established at Oak Ridge High School. The evacuees and the general public are encouraged to stop by and meet the Red Cross and Office of Emergency Services officials who would be responsible for their well-being in a real emergency. Fire safety exhibits and a raffle are planned.
Potential evacuees have received door hangers, red on one side, green on the other. Any door knob showing green on Saturday morning will be visited by an uniformed officer and the residents will be asked to evacuate. Participants are not required to stay at the evacuation center.
Evacuation routes, traffic control and security for evacuated homes are all part of the exercise.
El Dorado Hills Fire District Engineer Matt Belleci, coordinator of the drill, warned residents to expect plenty of fire apparatus in the streets with lights and sirens on, helicopters buzzing overhead and a large show of force by local law enforcement. “We only have five hours and we’re gonna make it count,” he said.
The Lakehills area was chosen because of its high threat for fire, Belleci explained. A potentially deadly combination of high vegetation load, steep terrain and lake winds can create “chimneys” that funnel heat and fire uphill fast, as Fred Adler can attest. See sidebar
EDH Fire Chief Dave Roberts added several other Lakehills threat factors to the list: limited ingress and egress, relatively high population, overhead power lines, narrow streets and older homes, many with dry shake roofs.
Roberts likened conditions in Lakehills to those that lead to two memorable urban California firestorms, Oakland Hills in 1991 and Angora in 2007.
The chief stressed the importance of interagency drills. “None of us have the resources to handle a major event like either of those by ourselves,” he said, adding that many members of participating agencies had never met prior to interagency planning sessions for the drill.
The event’s lead fire agencies are El Dorado Hills and Cal Fire, with strong participation from the El Dorado County Office of Emergency Services, which is under the purview of the Sheriff John D’Agostini, who was present at the Lake Forest school meeting.
Fire agencies from Folsom, Latrobe, Rescue, El Dorado County and Sacramento County will participate in the training. A Cal Fire bulldozer and the Sac Metro helicopter return this year to teach firefighters on the ground how to work safely with mechanized support.
“Emergency response is a partnership between the community and those whose job is to protect them,” said Roberts, who beseeched the Lakehills residents not to become part of the problem — to be prepared for a fire, know their exit routes and evacuate quickly when asked to do so in a real emergency.
A firefighter’s primary mission is to save lives, he said. “We will always stop fighting the fire to save people, but then the fire gets bigger and more people are in danger.”
Cal Fire Division Chief Brian Estes told Lakehills residents that the integrated fire response they enjoy in El Dorado County has met Cal Fire’s goal of containing 95 percent of all unwanted wildland fires at 10 acres or less for 20 years running, due in large part to interagency cooperation within the county.
Cal Fire provides aircraft, ground crews and engine companies to local agencies when they need them, he said. Locally that includes 13 engine companies, two bulldozers, nine fire crews and various support equipment.
El Dorado Hills Division Chief and Fire Marshal Brad Ballenger evoked the most damaging county fire in recent history, the 2007 Angora Fire, which leveled 242 homes west of Lake Tahoe.
“Some of those people had just a couple of minutes warning before they had to evacuate,” he said, adding that the reason no lives were lost was that unlike Lakehills, the Angora subdivision had wide streets and well-established exit points.
Ballenger stressed the importance of knowing the exit routes, and of having an exit plan, starting with the “Ready Set Go” program: “Ready your home, get yourself set to go quickly, and ‘go,’ which means get out of Dodge early.”
Ballenger also explained the “Six Ps of evacuation”:
People – get your family out quickly
Pets – don’t forget them
Photos – and family heirlooms
Pills – take your meds with you
Papers – decide in advance what you need
Plastic – charge cards to live on until you can return
He suggested staging the latter four Ps in advance, “so you can grab and go.”
Ballenger also reminded the residents about defensible space requirements — 30-feet of 2-inch-or-less grass or vegetation, plus an additional 70 feet at 4 inches or less.
Roberts encouraged Lakehills residents to download “Outreach,” a free iPhone app that provides near-real time notification of active incidents, with evacuation instructions and updates on who’s affected.
Outreach is the brainchild of volunteer firefighter Dion Nugent, who heads local software company Forte Holdings. Roberts called it “the world’s first fully interactive smartphone application for emergency response notification.”
He plans to test the first release during the Lakehills drill, and encouraged residents to download it from iTunes before Saturday. Later releases will provide information on regional, national or even international incidents, including access to social media posts from the site.
Retired El Dorado Hills Division Chief David Kennedy is now a regional Red Cross service coordinator. He and shelter manager Cindy Martin will be responsible for the test shelter at Oak Ridge. Kennedy called it a “little city” and invited all residents to stop by for information about fire safety, evacuations and possibly win a Red Cross “Go kit.”
El Dorado County Animal Control Officer Patty Perry encouraged animal owners to find a “pet buddy” outside their neighborhood willing to hold their animals during an evacuation, rather than take them to a shelter.
Roberts called the June 9 exercise “unprecedented” in size, scope and participation. Its goal, he said, is to reveal weaknesses in the system.
Cheryl Adler, who lived through a firestorm that denuded Iron Mountain a couple of years before the Southpointe subdivision was built said she thought the drill was a great idea, but wondered about the area’s largest vulnerability, beach bonfires that can jump into dry brush that’s accumulated above the lake unabated for the last several years.
Other Lakehills residents echoed Adler’s concern, wondering aloud if the lake’s transient summer party population would one day inadvertently burn down their neighborhood.
“In the summer when it’s so hot and dry you look down at the lake and see these huge bonfires on the beach,” said Adler.
Attorney Rick Linkert lives north of Guadalupe Drive in Lakehills. He called the buildup of dry fuel in the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area “the elephant in the room,” and said it directly threatens his home and his neighborhood.
“It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when,” he said by phone afterward. “Park trees reach over my yard and are almost touching my deck, but we’re told we can’t touch anything in there.”
Roberts suggested that residents form a Fire Safe Council, which might carry more weight with the Folsom SRA and is also eligible for grants that funded agencies are not.
Estes reported that Cal Fire’s vegetation management program is specifically designed for the problem at hand, and that agency leadership fought to restore program funding this year.
But state park officials must allow Cal Fire to clear the brush in the park, something that Linkert said hasn’t happened yet.
Some Lakehills property owners have taken matters into their own hands, he added. One was arrested at gunpoint for clearing brush that allegedly threatened his home. Park officials allegedly countered that he was merely clearing his view of the lake.
Next week Village Life digs deeper into the disconnect between residents and state park officials on an ever-increasing fuel load that Lakehills residents contend threatens their homes during fire season.
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