Even as evacuation orders were issued for the Walker Fire, the largest of California’s wildfire season, a study released by a San Francisco company listed 100 communities in the country where escaping disaster would be most difficult. It found many of those communities are in California, and several are right here on the Coastside.

The StreetLight Data Inc. report was no surprise to local first responders.

“We are highly concerned about areas of the Midcoast and parts of Half Moon Bay because they have large concentrations of residents,” said CalFire Division Chief Jonathan Cox.

The study used smartphone and GPS data to score 30,000 cities across the United States based on the total population, the number of roadway exits leading outside and the average number of vehicles each route will carry on a typical day. Only cities with a population of 40,000 or less were factored into the results. It also assumed people would choose familiar routes to escape in an emergency, even though other exits might exist. Montara, Half Moon Bay and Pacifica were included in the 22 Bay Area cities with scores that were three or more times the national average.

“We think it provides quantitative information for communities who may not have access to the info but might find it useful in making contact with local authorities to bring attention to their emergency preparedness planning,” said Martin Morzynski, vice president of marketing and product management at StreetLight Data.

The analysis looked at each town in isolation, but on the Coastside towns may all need to evacuate at the same time, which is why “the data is just a pointer to the problem,” Morzynski said.  Locally, there are plans in place to address evacuation procedures.

In March, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors approved $250,000 in Measure K funds to have CalFire create “Standardized Evacuation Zone Polygons.”

“Standard evacuation zones are being developed at the moment and are going to allow fire officials to know how much resources they need to control if there is a wildfire,” Cox said. “It’s about how do we get people out quickly and when we are getting them out, how do we get them to successfully leave the area and go through the pathways?” 

The Standard Evacuation Zones will allow emergency 911 dispatchers, incident commanders, law enforcement officers and fire officials to all be looking at the same predefined areas that are in danger, Cox explained. 

Such coordination does not currently exist, but, by the end of the year, the zones should be complete, according to Cox.

“It is all data driven by traffic flow, wildfire elements and fuel. It will be available for all local agencies to make any changes,” Cox said. “This allows fire officials to more accurately order resources, allows law enforcement officers from outside the area to quickly know the areas to enforce, and provides highway officials information on which roads and intersections to control to move evacuees out of an area more rapidly. “These zones are to ensure everyone is on the ‘sheet of music’ before a large wildfire so that when the big one does strike we are more rapidly able to save lives and get the affected people to safety,” Cox said. 

During an emergency, Cox said, “Don’t wait for the official word if you smell smoke or see a fire. Better safe than sorry, and get out.”

He said there are evacuation guides at the fire station in El Granada for people to pick up and keep at home for reference.

“The most vulnerable populations are the ones that we need to look at to plan ahead,” Cox said. “It‘s that whole neighbor-helping-neighbor philosophy.”   

Additionally, the county’s Office of Sustainability is funding a climate study.

“There is a study looking at the change in climate in 50 years,” Cox said. “It’s also looking at fog decreasing, and what it’s saying is the El Granada area has the highest chance of being vulnerable to wildfire, so that data is starting to stand out.”

The takeaway is that the coast is vulnerable to wildfire, officials say.

“In the short term, leave early if there are reports of fire and think about your neighbors,” Cox said.

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