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Automated emergency evacuation call raises concerns

By: Gloria Young, Journal Staff Writer
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As flames tore through homes and businesses in North Auburn, a series of automated phone calls from the Placer County Sheriff’s Department’s dispatch office alerted residents to voluntary and mandatory evacuations. One of those, a late-afternoon message announcing a mandatory evacuation within a seven-mile radius of Bell Road was raising eyebrows and questions Monday. Some say it unnecessarily created confusion. Residents as far away as Clipper Gap and Newcastle — several miles from the reach of the 49 Fire — received the call. “Our 80-plus-year-old neighbors were traumatized in their effort to get out,“ Meadow Vista resident Jon Anderson wrote in an e-mail to the Journal Monday. “Another friend called this morning to tell me that his wife crashed their new car into a tree while backing up in a rush. I suspect there were many such instances that occurred as a result of this apparent premature alert.“ A short time after the calls went out, officials announced on radio and TV to disregard the seven-mile requirement. A subsequent robo-call issued a clarification that “there were no evacuations in place for areas south of Bell Road and west of Highway 49.” North Auburn resident Michael Stark, who lives a couple of miles from the Auburn Municipal Airport, found out about the fire when he received a call advising of a mandatory evacuation just for the vicinity of the fire. “I stepped out on my deck and was startled by the size of the smoke cloud looming to the north,” he said in an e-mail. He was further astonished when a neighbor told him of the seven-mile radius call, which he hadn’t heard. “The scope (of the evacuation) made me really question it,” he said by phone Monday. “I thought it had to be an enormous fire to trigger that. That seemed to be totally unrealistic. Just knowing the population of Auburn, we’re talking 10,000 people probably. That’s an enormous number to evacuate. That brings unintended consequences.” Stark’s reaction was to jump into his car and find a vantagepoint to view the blaze. It was then that he heard a radio announcement disavowing the message. As he headed for the airport, he encountered significant but not overwhelming traffic on the roads. “People weren’t heading away, they were heading toward (the fire),” he said. At the airport, he joined a couple of dozen onlookers on the runway. There’s where the full impact of the disaster hit home. “It was a very frightening,” he said. “The black clouds were enormous. The grass was burning close to the western edge of the runway. The most striking thing was the sound of explosions. It sounded like people’s propane tanks were exploding.” It wasn’t until he arrived back home, that he received the robo-message about the seven-mile evacuation — still circulating even though it had been rescinded awhile earlier. He doesn’t know of any of his neighbors who followed the evacuation order. “I discussed it with several of them,” Stark said. “They all thought it was not credible.” At Auburn Ravine Terrace, a care home on Auburn Ravine Road within city limits, several residents received the automated call to evacuate. It created a little bit of confusion but no chaos. “One of our staff members called the Auburn Police Department and they told us we didn’t need to evacuate because the wind was blowing the other way,” administrator Robert Mauer said. “Nobody really panicked. They just asked a lot of questions. We suggested to any residents that were concerned to call their family to pick them up. A couple of them went to family members, but we didn’t evacuate anyone.” In fact, a short time after the mandatory evacuation call was received at the Journal, Auburn Police Chief Valerie Harris contacted the newspaper to post a notice that there were no evacuations for residents living within the Auburn city limits. Closer to the fire, Siena Care Center, on Education Street, did not receive the mandatory evacuation call. “Our emergency system is so good in this area, I knew I would be notified along with a full complement of what I needed to have to evacuate our patients,” executive director Joan Martilucci said. Another Auburn resident, Felecia Bowers, e-mailed the Journal about others not on the robo-call tree. “Some people do not have land lines and use cell phones,” she wrote. “Therefore, some did not receive the mandatory evacuation calls.” For Anderson, it’s an issue that needs to be resolved before the next crisis. “One other major concern would be the “crying wolf” syndrome when an evacuation is truly in order,” he wrote. “Someone made a big mistake and the procedure needs to be evaluated in my opinion.” At the same time, Anderson noted that it is better to be safe than sorry, and it is a reminder to have a plan ready in the event of a real fire emergency. Calls to the Sheriff’s Department and the Office of Emergency Services were not returned as of press time. Gloria Young can be reached at gloriay@goldcountrymedia.com.