CAZADERO (KPIX) – About 100 Sonoma County residents practiced fleeing a wildfire Saturday morning. It was only a drill, but they all knew the threat was all too real.
The 2018 campfire wiped out the town of Paradise and became America’s deadliest wildfire in the past century. When the fire began to rage through the city, even those who knew the area well became lost in terror and confusion.
“We can’t even see! We don’t know where the fire is! a terrified woman said in a YouTube video as she stumbled through the smoke. Eight-five people died in this hell, some while fleeing.
People living along Sonoma County’s winding, tree-lined Cazadero Road don’t want the same thing to happen to them.
“It’s always very much on everyone’s mind in these communities when I go out and talk to them — is that the reality, that possibility is there,” said Jeff DuVall, deputy director of managing county emergency.
“We drive the road every day, inside and out,” said Paul Barry, Cazadero resident and retired firefighter. “But it’s a different situation when you’re actually trying to run for your life.”
On Saturday morning, the county held a wildfire evacuation drill for residents of the small towns of Cazadero and Fort Ross. The trees form a canopy over the narrow two-lane road and the risk of wildfire is something that haunts even the most experienced firefighters.
“It’s really scary,” said Volunteer Fire Chief Steve Krausmann. “During the LNU Lightning Complex fires, we had a fire on the west side of Cazadero, we had a fire on the east side of Cazadero and a wind shift and it would have gone straight down the canyon.”
“We’re starting the exercise. Let’s go for the Fort Ross siren. We’re starting the exercise,” a volunteer told a radio station. With that, a siren began to sound through the canyon and the sheriff’s cars headed for the neighborhoods blaring their distinctive “high-low” warning that indicates there is danger in the area.
“When you hear that high-low siren, it means it’s time to go. It’s time to evacuate,” DuVall said.
When the cars started to leave, they came to a familiar choke point – the freeway narrows to a single lane due to a washout five years ago. It’s the kind of place where drivers could create traffic jams as fire trucks approach from the opposite direction.
“At that point it could turn into a real ‘cluster,'” Paul Barry said.
If the fire was already in the area, it could be catastrophic, which is why authorities are pleading with people not to wait until the last minute to leave.
“People should leave when there’s a warning, not wait for the evacuation order,” Barry said. “When the evacuation order comes out, it’s almost too late.”
The evacuation drill ended at the community center in the nearby town of Monte Rio. Longtime resident Rebecca Honeyman said the experience was empowering and thinks it will come in handy if or when the need arises.
“I actually tried to imagine what it might look like,” she said. “But when you see all the fire footage, there’s nothing left to imagine. Just get up and go.”
Sonoma County sends disaster alerts directly to residents. They encourage everyone in the county to sign up for the “SoCo Alert” system. For more information, visit: http://socoemergency.org/get-ready/sign-up