Marin (CA) Wildfire Agency Invests in Evacuation App

Fire hydrant

Adrian Rodriguez

The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.

(MCT)

Jan. 30—The technology used to evacuate 5,000 people in the Santa Cruz Mountains during the heavy storm this week will soon be put to work in Marin.

A new cloud-based mapping application called Zonehaven, which provides police and fire officials with real-time data on emergency and fire risks as well as population and traffic, delivered evacuation instructions to the residents there as the threat of mudslides loomed in the burn-scarred areas of the CZU Lightning Complex fires.

That same subscription platform will soon be used in Marin, providing better data to local authorities and better communication to residents, officials said.

“We’ve been very pleased,” said Matt Samson, deputy fire chief of the South San Francisco Fire Department in San Mateo County. The agency was the first to partner with Zonehaven, using the system for evacuations after the lightning-stoked fires hit in August.

“We saw the benefit in it immediately,” Samson said. “Not only could we communicate evacuation orders to the community, but our neighboring counties could see what was going on, which made for an easier transition in response when the fires crossed boundaries.”

It’s going to cost the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority an initial $108,000, which includes a setup fee, to bring the platform to Marin. The annual fee is $72,000 to maintain it, said Mark Brown, executive director of the fire authority.

Marin fire officials had developed evacuation maps in 2005, but those are static, non-interactive maps that haven’t been updated since 2016.

“Evacuation planning and preparation fits into the core elements of what this JPA was tasked to do as part of its mission,” said Marin County Supervisor Katie Rice, referring to the joint powers authority. “Not only that, it’s one of key things the community wanted us to focus on. This is a perfect fit.”

Officials have already decided that the county will be divided into five areas: Novato, San Rafael, the Ross Valley, Southern Marin and West Marin. It will take three months to input all the data needed to get the system up and running, Brown said.

The Zonehaven application will use satellite and internet data from third-party applications such as Google Maps and Waze, as well as information from local police, fire, public works and other emergency personnel. When authorities identify a threat, they can use the application to push evacuation warnings and orders to residents of specific zones within the five areas, Brown said.

Notifications will be sent through the county’s AlertMarin.org emergency alert system, as well as on social media and Nixle. Residents can look up their addresses online to see the map update alerts in real time.

“The goal is to get people safely out of harm’s way a lot faster, and this will help us do that,” Brown said. “Zonehaven is very dynamic. It’s going to give us instant and constant information that is viewable by the public. Residents will know exactly what zone they’re in, where they need to go in an evacuation. It will help us with traffic management, where to put traffic control.”

Charlie Crocker, co-founder and chief executive of Zonehaven, said once the county gets ready to launch, a “know your zone” campaign will commence so residents can learn which zone they live in and how to use the system.

Napa and Sonoma counties are joining around the same time, so they might conduct some cross-county exercises and drills, Crocker said.

“Disasters know no boundaries,” Crocker said. “Fires, spills, wind events, floods — we have to in a sense remove jurisdictional boundaries to drive and support people to getting out of harm’s way.”

Additionally, the wildfire prevention authority is partnering with the Transportation Authority of Marin on a study of county roads that will rate evacuation routes and provide detailed descriptions of each area. The results of the study will be fed into the Zonehaven system. The budget and timeline for that project has yet to be determined, but Brown said he plans to put out a request for proposals in the next few months.

The study will identify pinch points, signal light issues and traffic patterns. Officials will use that information for projects to improve road safety and learn how to best manipulate signal lights and traffic lanes in the event of an evacuation, Brown said.

Central Marin fire Chief Ruben Martin, president of the Marin County Fire Chiefs Association, pointed to the Madrone Canyon neighborhood in Larkspur as an example of an area that is going to be assessed. There are about 250 homes there and only one road leads in and out.

“It’s going to be tough to funnel all those people out who would be leaving at the same time,” Martin said of a potential evacuation.

“A lot of these communities were built on substandard roadways about 100 years ago,” Martin said. “They were vacation cabins, smaller vehicles traveled here, and now homes have gotten much larger, and there is limited access in and out. It’s not just an issue that we have here, but in several communities throughout Marin.”

Novato police Chief Matt McCaffrey said the Paradise fire in 2018 highlighted the hurdles and lack of preparedness authorities faced in evacuating the community. While Zonehaven is helpful, it is a tool, not a comprehensive solution, McCaffrey said.

“It’s not going to take the place of human judgment of the staff on the field,” McCaffrey said. “In the best-case scenario, we will never have to use it. It’s like the fire extinguisher in the glass case on the wall collecting dust. Let’s hope you never have to break the glass and pull it out, but it’s nice to know it’s available to us if we need it.”

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