UPDATE: On Tuesday afternoon, Cal Fire lifted evacuation warnings to Santa Clara County residents in the areas of Foothills Park to the Santa Clara County line, including Los Trancos Open Space; south of Moody Road, west of Rancho San Antonio Open Space, west of Black Mountain to Highway 35 (Skyline); Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, south of Monte Bello Road to Highway 35 (Skyline); and areas to the south. See "Tracking the wildfires" for the map of the warning area.
The massive wildfire in the Santa Cruz Mountains might still be 3 miles away from the county's border, but residents in the Palo Alto Hills neighborhood are concerned they may need to evacuate.
Nestled between Palo Alto Foothills Park and Arastradero Preserve, the neighborhood of 77 residences is surrounded by nature's beauty — and danger. City leaders on Friday, Aug. 21, issued a notice to residents in the hills to prepare to evacuate.
But how they will get out quickly and safely is on everyone's minds.
Residents know that if fire comes, the neighborhood has only one exit route, resident Jan Terry told this news organization — the narrow and winding Page Mill Road. City crews have made it a priority to clear brush so that the fire cannot jump across the road. If the fire does jump, fleeing residents could find themselves trying to drive through a tunnel of flames, fire personnel have said.
At a neighborhood meeting with city Emergency Operations Services Chief Ken Dueker and fire Chief Geo Blackshire last summer, the pair warned residents the road could also become clogged with fire equipment and emergency vehicles, preventing evacuating cars from getting through. A tremendous amount of smoke could also reduce visibility; ash and heat could cause cars to stall, Terry recalled they said.
During last year's devastating fires in California, "95% of those who died out of Paradise were caught by the fire while evacuating or were trapped in the house," Terry said. "That's very sobering. Cars don't run that well in that heat and could be poking along the road at 3 to 4 mph."
There's one other potential exit route. A city park ranger gave the neighborhood a key to a locked gate so people could flee across Arastradero Preserve if necessary, she said.
But Terry warned against complacence. People should not expect the city — nor the neighborhood — to tell them when to leave.
"Pretty much, people are on their own. We're not going to organize an evacuation. You evacuate when you feel it's best," she said. That means using good judgment and paying attention to when it feels right.
"Last year, Ken (Dueker) said, 'If you are at Arastradero and you see billowing smoke and flames, don't wait. When it's really bad, don't wait for us,'" she recalled.
Palo Alto Hills Neighborhood Association President Mark Nadim said he and his neighbors would likely head for the Palo Alto Hills Golf and Country Club on Page Mill Road, where a large golf course provides an open refuge and there's a staffed kitchen.
The golf course manager reached out to the neighborhood, Terry said. But people shouldn't think the golf course would necessarily be safe. Large fires can suck out oxygen and super-heat the air, searing lungs and causing people to suffocate, she noted.
That scenario was well documented in one of the nation's most devastating fires. The Great Fire of 1910 in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and in western Montana killed numerous firefighters who took refuge from the burning forests in caves and mine shafts. Some died of asphyxiation; the lucky ones survived if they found a small pocket of air near the ground to breathe, according to the book "The Big Burn" by Timothy Egan.
Nadim will be emailing residents a checklist of items that should be in their "go bag." Not everyone has shared their email address, however, Terry said, so she might put some paper copies on residents' doors.
Nadim said he's continually spreading the word to prepare. He has received numerous text messages and emails from San Mateo County and Santa Clara County and Palo Alto Police Department.
"I keep forwarding them to the neighbors," he said. "Everyone is concerned; we're all on edge."
On Aug. 21, the city of Palo Alto posted instructions for residents on its website stating that it would send a pre-evacuation warning through the Nextdoor app, Nixle alert system, Twitter and Facebook. The county may also send a pre-evacuation warning prior to an official evacuation warning through the AlertSCC system to affected residents, the website stated. The city will then send an emergency alert reminder following the county's order.
In an evacuation tip sheet, the city stated that it is imperative that residents "promptly evacuate along the prescribed route and promptly follow all instructions of emergency personnel. Do not linger to see what happens. These fires are moving much faster than you might think possible; for example, on August 20, the CZU Complex was expanding at a rate of 700 to 1,000 acres per hour."
Winds from destructive fires don't usually blow in the direction of the Santa Cruz Mountains. But last year, fire professionals, including Blackshire, expressed concern that weather and vegetation conditions could lead to exactly the kind of situation the mountain communities are experiencing now.
Dueker said Friday that his agency is keeping a close eye on developments.
"The city's Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is continuing to monitor and coordinate with County EOC and other agencies. Our Emergency Services Volunteers (ESV) have been contacted and may be asked to assist," in the event of an evacuation or if the fire moves close to Palo Alto, he said.
Terry said she will have her "go bag" ready by Saturday and has her evacuation place picked out: the Courtyard by Marriott in Los Altos. But she's worried about her neighbors.
"My biggest fear is people aren't going to be prepared to leave," she said. "We've not had a fire in 50 years."
For more information about the wildfires, see the city's alert page with regional fire status information and resources.
On Aug. 23, the city of Palo Alto posted this evacuation map for the residents of the Palo Alto Hills neighborhood.