City of South Lake Tahoe making progress on emergency evacuation plans
After years of resistance and inaction by previous public safety officials, South Lake Tahoe is close to having an emergency evacuation plan.
The document and accompanying preparations have climbed the priority ladder with city officials and residents who have demanded action in recent months following the Camp Fire — California’s deadliest blaze on record.
Police Chief Brian Uhler presented what he described as a draft evacuation map to City Council earlier this month.
The document details primary and secondary routes for exiting the city, as well as potential shelter-in-place locations and sites for evacuating the city via Lake Tahoe.
The map, which is interactive, also provides a breakdown by neighborhood, offering additional information about what to do when evacuating via vehicle.
The map, as Uhler stated, is in draft form. Some entities, such as CAL FIRE, have already provided input on the document. Once all of those tweaks are made, the plan is to make the document available to the public.
It is, as he noted, an early step in increasing emergency preparedness in the community.
For years, officials with various agencies in the Tahoe Basin resisted creating widespread evacuation plans for various reasons. With few exits in and out of the basin coupled with the unpredictable nature of wildfire, some feared creating concrete plans could inevitably lead people into danger, rather than away from it.
And with numerous governmental agencies around the lake, the creation of a widespread plan requires collaboration and communication across jurisdictional lines, which further complicates the work.
While the reasoning may be different, the Tahoe area is far from the only one without emergency evacuation plans.
A survey by the USA TODAY Network-California earlier this year found that only 22% of communities at high risk from wildfire had a robust, publicly available evacuation plan.
Some officials around the state, as some in Tahoe have argued, contend evacuation plans are more harmful than helpful, the USA TODAY Network-California reported.
That topic was tossed to Uhler in the form of a question from Councilor Jason Collin, who asked the chief if evacuations work.
“There is a need for us to try …” Uhler responded.
He referenced an attempted evacuation drill the city conducted years ago in the Silver Dollar Avenue area. The drill drew very little public participation, Uhler said. However, the situation is different now.
“The difference before now and then is that Paradise happened,” he said.
Following the Camp Fire, residents started demanding South Lake Tahoe officials elevate protecting against a devastating fire to a top priority.
Then-Fire Chief Jeff Meston issued similar warnings. Days after the Camp Fire, he told the Tribune that Paradise, while similar to Tahoe, was far more prepared for a wildfire. And yet it burned.
“There’s no question about it,” Meston said in November 2018 of the potential for a fire in the Tahoe Basin. “We have many, many similarities and some dis-similarities that are disadvantageous to us.”
Uhler expressed a sense of urgency in drafting the evacuation plans presented to council. For that reason, the focus was restricted to the city.
A more regional approach, which Uhler identified as a “next step,” would have slowed the process. And with the heavy winter delaying the severity of fire season, Uhler stressed that the danger of a catastrophic blaze is only growing greater as conditions continue to dry.
The city anticipates the evacuation map to be released to the public within the next two weeks.