"They got out before they had to"

Sep 14, 2020

September 10, 2020 — When the Oak fire broke out in Brooktrails on Labor Day, Sherwood Firewise did what it’s been planning to do for years, ever since the Redwood Complex revealed how important it is to be ready for catastrophic wildfire, especially for communities with only one way in and one way out.

Keith Rutledge, who’s on the Sherwood Firewise steering group, estimates that about 5,000 people evacuated safely from 2,000 homes, over a fairly spread-out area with multiple clusters of dwellings.

Rutledge is an evacuee, and so is Mathew Caine, who is a professional photographer with the Willits Weekly and the program coordinator with Sherwood Firewise. Most of his job consists of recruiting volunteers, which he said has gotten a lot easier since the evacuation. He got out pretty smoothly. “People were smart,” he reflected. “They got out before they had to.” He estimated it took him 10-15 minutes to throw together a few essentials, and another 10-15 minutes to get into Willits.

Rutledge added that, in addition to spending a year and a half honing notification methods and building a communications network that includes ham radio operators and volunteers who monitor the scanners to activate what he calls a 21st century phone tree, Sherwood Firewise recently had a practice evacuation drill on a Saturday morning. He said one member was feeling pretty good about how quickly he got out with everything he needed, until he realized he was wearing flip-flops.

Of course, in order to get out in a hurry, there has to be more than one route. For years, the community has been haunted by the prospect of everyone in Brooktrails trying to get out along Sherwood Road as firefighting equipment tries to get in. Rutledge said that became a focal point at an early Firewise meeting in March of 2018, when a fire chief laid out the situation with the routes, which are on private property, though one is in use as a sewer easement for the city of Willits. The fire chief, Rutledge recalled, “told the group that those routes were no longer viable, so to not count on them being used, either for fire ingress or evacuation egress as needed. And that really is what started the Sherwood Firewise group to try to get more preparedness for fire in general, but also to make sure we could reopen them as evacuation and/or emergency access routes...one of those routes, the Firco route, has been used heavily in this fire.”

The whole effort has involved lots of meetings and agreements and coordination among parties. The landowners don’t want people trespassing or vandalizing their property, and firefighters don’t want to bulldoze a route while a fire is moving fast across the terrain. Everyone wants to get out, but law enforcement doesn’t want people taking matters into their own hands and cutting the lock on a gate on their own recognizance. 

In the end, everyone had to agree that the routes are necessary and legal, but that they’ll only be used during an officially declared evacuation. For now, there’s CalFire money to maintain the routes, but Sherwood Firewise and county counsel are also working on developing a county service area, a minimal add-on to the property taxes for the 2,000 properties within the benefit zone, so they can pay for ongoing maintenance. The ballot is independent of the election cycle, and Rutledge hopes to send it out in the first quarter of next year.