Huge Fire Prompts Emergency Planning … Four Years Later

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The Yorba Linda City Council Tuesday night directed city staff to develop citywide evacuation plans for potential disasters, a precaution taken nearly four years after a huge wildfire caused panic and destroyed 117 homes on the outskirts of the city.

The evacuation plan will be added to the Emergency Operations Center Manual, which lacks such a plan, and will be developed by the disaster council, which is chaired by the mayor.

Mayor Mark Schwing also ordered that the emergency plans be developed in coordination with city police and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

The council approved the motion without discussion. A call for comment from the audience was met with silence.

The decision was prompted by concern over the confusion and panic that ensued after the Nov. 15, 2008, Freeway Complex fire.

During the fire, Yorba Linda residents in Hidden Hills, San Antonio and other foothill neighborhoods evacuated their homes but encountered severe traffic on Yorba Linda Boulevard, effectively trapping them between the fire and their escape, according to Schwing.

Schwing said that he was surprised to discover that so long after the Freeway Complex fire, the city still had not developed emergency evacuation plans for such a disaster.

The city has “no procedure to do an emergency evacuation,” Schwing said. “There is no plan to say, ‘These are the key intersections in this disaster that should be manned by police officers to direct traffic.’ “

Schwing said that he would meet with city officials sometime before early October to discuss how to create an evacuation plan that could be specially tailored for anything from “a wildfire to a railroad disaster spilling chemicals or an earthquake.”

A disaster “could happen as early as next week, or it could not happen for another 30 years,” the mayor said. He urged the city to move forward quickly.

“When you see people in panic mode, they’re not thinking rationally. They’re just trying to escape with their lives,” Schwing said.

— ADAM O’NEAL

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