Wildfires pose a significant threat to those who live in the Tahoe region. They are a danger many have learned to live with, but as our nation mourns the tragic loss of so many lives in the Maui fires, the threat to our own communities comes back into sharp focus.
Like every community, North Lake Tahoe has its own set of unique challenges that must be considered when planning and preparing for wildfire emergency response. We held an Eastern Placer County Emergency Preparedness Town Hall in August to share our planning efforts with our residents. We often highlight community preparedness, but it’s also important to talk about our own agency’s preparedness plans. This town hall, attended by approximately 350 people, focused extensively on evacuation planning by the Placer County Sheriff’s Office. If you missed the town hall, I encourage you to watch it at your convenience.
Our deputies and first responders are trained to operate in unified command, which means the Placer County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO), our fire partners, and other vital cooperators work collaboratively to coordinate evacuation routes in a wildland fire. Recently, Placer County reorganized its emergency services and created the Emergency Management Team. Thanks to an investment on the part of the board of supervisors, we now have a full-time team in place representing PCSO, Cal Fire/Placer County Fire, and the Office of Emergency Services working in unified command to plan and prepare for a variety of emergency situations. This new model is a first of its kind in the state of California, putting Placer County on the cutting edge of emergency management.
When I took over as sheriff for Placer County, my top priorities were to increase communication, build relationships, and enhance collaborative efforts with all our first responder partners. We are in a day and age in this society where we must contend with a growing number of emergencies, and when it comes to emergency management there is no room for error. It’s essential that we work together as a team if we are to be successful and keep our residents safe.
I can assure our community that you are in competent hands. I know many of you fear that traffic congestion will overwhelm evacuation routes should a fire erupt during a holiday weekend in Tahoe. Rest assured, we plan and prepare for these types of scenarios and use evacuation procedures that allow us to implement a phased approach, so we do not needlessly evacuate residents and overwhelm our roadways.
There has been criticism that we have not implemented pre-zones (a pre-designated evacuation area that’s already drawn out, regardless of where the emergency is located) like other neighboring counties, but we have learned through trial and error that pre-zones may cast too large a net and do not always properly target the specific regions under threat. This could lead to larger-than-needed evacuations, which may result in unnecessary traffic congestion. For this reason, we draw our evacuation zones according to the fire and other critical incidents we are battling and their unique characteristics.
We also rely heavily on data to determine vehicle capacity on State Route 89 and State Route 267, and we know where the choke points are located; we have the capability to divert resources to keep flows moving as fast as possible. We can implement contra flows, if necessary, meaning all lanes of traffic will move in one direction to facilitate a faster evacuation process. We also have identified all potential temporary shelters in the region and if there isn’t enough time for a safe evacuation, we will move residents to these pre-determined safe locations. I understand these may not be ideal options for everyone, but as we just saw in the Maui fires, it’s essential to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
Please know we have strategies in place to notify visitors and locals alike of evacuation orders. We rely heavily on mutual aid assistance from our law enforcement partners in Washoe, El Dorado, and Nevada counties, as well as the California Highway Patrol, to help us with door-to-door notifications.
We also have hi-lo sirens that blare loudly in neighborhoods to warn residents when there is an evacuation order or warning, and we use reverse 911 communication to reach house landlines, which are required in Placer County’s short-term rentals. We may also use the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system to notify a larger demographic should this become necessary.
While these strategies have proven to be successful, there is no replacement for the effectiveness of Placer Alert as a primary emergency notification tool. We understand that visitors are not likely to sign up for this tool, but we strongly urge locals to register to receive up-to-the-minute alerts.
I know I speak for the entire sheriff’s office when I say we are all impacted by the tragedy of the Maui fires, but I also know this hardens our resolve and makes us stronger as we prepare to keep our communities safe for generations to come.
~ Sheriff Wayne Woo has enjoyed a 33-year career in law enforcement and has served Placer County since 1994. In 2022, Woo was elected as the 29th sheriff of Placer County. He also sits on the board of the Placer Sheriff’s Activities League and holds a master’s degree in criminal justice management from the University of Nevada, Reno.