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Valley fire evacuation and the SDC Specific Plan

Memories of the 2017 Nuns Fire continue to haunt Glen Ellen neighbors

By CHASE HUNTER

INDEX-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

Those who fled Glen Ellen on the night of Oct. 8, 2017 still carry vivid memories of being trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic as the fire swept closer.

It inspired many neighbors to ask questions about fire safety and evacuations as redevelopment plans were finalized at the Sonoma Developmental Center, adding 1,000 housing units and up to 2,400 people.

The county’s recently released environmental impact report for SDC found a negligible impact to evacuation times from fires, despite the addition of new residents. These results will allow the project to move forward unimpeded after its public comment period on Sept. 23.

“We know there have been a lot of folks who are living through the trauma of the 2017 fires and the subsequent fires in Sonoma County,” said Bradley Dunn, the policy manager at Permit Sonoma, “so we took (fire evacuation) very seriously and did a lot of work to make sure that we effectively studied what would happen.”

A January letter by the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council cited a community survey that found 71% of respondents believed the county had not “adequately addressed fire hazards ...” in its proposal.

The EIR determined evacuation routes would not need to change under the proposed development of SDC. It found the proposed developments would “increase travel times to areas beyond the evacuation areas by up to 1.2 minutes... although the average increase will be 0.2 minutes.”

According to the report, the increase in travel time does not present a clear or present harm to residents during a fire

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evacuation from the SDC or surrounding communities, which many feared would be the case when the project is fully completed and thousands of people live on the property.

The Sonoma Valley Fire District, the Department of Emergency Management and consultants hired by the county all reviewed and analyzed aspects of the emergency response plan and the topography of the surrounding environment in relation to fire risk.

“This was a collaborative effort between the fire district and department emergency management,” Sonoma Fire Chief Steve Akre said. “(The Department of Emergency Management) provided them with the evacuation zone map ... And then we went through from an operational standpoint.”

Two wildfire scenarios were considered in the report: a fire approaching Kenwood and Glen Ellen from the northeast; and a fire approaching from the Springs to the south.

“In that first scenario... we recreated or demonstrated or provided information to the consultants about really what happened in 2017,” Akre said.

These wildfire scenarios were then played out against three traffic levels: 1) Typical weekday afternoon/ peak hour without evacuation; 2) Peak hour with evacuation but no mitigation measures; 3) Peak hour with evacuation, plus additional mitigation measures, which Dunn described.

The worst-case scenario was a 1.2- minute increase from Glen Ellen to Sears Point in the south of Sonoma Valley.

“There are a host of policies to help in the event of wildfire,” Dunn said.

“The biggest one is a new connection between Arnold Drive and State Route 12 that would help aid evacuations in many cases.” Dunn argued that because the EIR showed fire evacuations would not be significantly affected, the redevelopment of SDC included more of what the community wants and needs, he said, including 283 units of affordable housing, space for businesses, and an “agrihood” of integrated neighborhoods with gardens.

The proposal also calls for a shelter-in-place facility at SDC to go with a revitalized water system to improve the capacity for firefighters in the event of a blaze.

The Sonoma Valley Fire District is planning to take over the fire department located at the SDC, which provides strategic positioning for fighting fires throughout Sonoma Valley, according to Akre.

“There’s been a fire department at the SDC for over 100 years ... Having adequate on-site fire protection is critical for getting to and extinguishing fires early in their incipient phase,” Akre said, referring to absorbing the SDC Fire Department into Sonoma Valley Fire.

“It would give our crew that are out there at SDC, the opportunity to stop a fire at you know, its smallest size.” Still, the work is not done on SDC for the team at Permit Sonoma, which will give presentations on the EIR at public meetings until the public comment period closes Sept. 23.

Permit Sonoma will next visit a joint meeting of the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission, Springs Municipal Advisory Council and North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council on Wednesday, Aug. 24, at 6:30 p.m. Contact Chase Hunter at chase.hunter@sonomanews. com and follow @ Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

Before the facility was shuttered, residents were evacuated from the Sonoma Developmental Center on Monday, October 9, 2017, during the Nuns Fire.

BETH SCHLANKER / THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

When neighbors protested at SDC in June, fire safety was among the chief concerns.

KENT PORTER / THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

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