San Mateo County fire officials are working on a project that, once complete, will standardize evacuation plans for all residents in the county. 

Both the Tubbs and Camp fires highlighted the importance of having a well-defined evacuation plan. In response, fire chiefs in San Mateo County decided to come up with a way to improve on efforts locally. The result was to develop a mapping tool that can be viewed by both first responders and the public. 

“Most times it is Sharpies on a hood of the car and drawing a map and saying this is the area we want to evacuate,” CalFire Division Chief Jonathan Cox said. “… which is OK for first responders at the scene, but it’s hard to translate that to the general public.” 

Traditional means of distributing information about evacuation orders can include using social media, notification services or press releases. Cox acknowledged that often people continued to use the resources they are familiar with when looking for information during an emergency. 

“We did not want to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “So we thought, what if we could build a tool that met the needs of first responders and also met the needs of the public?” 

This resulted in CalFire working with the company Zonehaven to create a mapping service that will provide real-time updates on evacuations. The map will show the county divided into about 300 different zones and allow first responders and the public to see which areas are being evacuated. 

“If you can order a pizza online there is no reason first responders should not be able to tap on their mobile device to call an evacuation,” Cox said. “This is just a faster approach.” 

The public will be able to view what zone they live in and if an evacuation is ordered and where to evacuate to. First responders will have access to a more detailed map which will show where traffic is heaviest. 

“This will show them which roads are impacted the most and where they need to go to assist with traffic control,” Cox said. 

Additionally, the map will notify the traffic app Waze to reroute motorists away from the evacuation zone. 

“This, first and foremost, will get people out faster. It also allows first responders to make better informed decisions,” Cox said. “It gets people prepared and thinking about what if I was to evacuate, what tools will I need?” 

In March, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors approved $250,000 Measure K funds to develop the project. Cox said CalFire will be seeking more funding from the county to launch the tool once complete. He anticipates the website will be available before the next wildfire season. 

This tool is the first of its kind in the Bay Area, but Cox said more jurisdictions are working with Zonehaven to develop their own maps. 

“There are so few ways out on the Coastside and it is isolated, so any way you can make informed decisions quicker, it can result in lives being saved,” Cox said. 

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