Bolinas to be case study in evacuation

07/03/2019

In the event of a wildfire, the few and narrow roads out of Bolinas pose a particular danger. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, are launching a yearlong study in Bolinas that will employ new traffic simulation models to develop the most efficient method of evacuation. The Bolinas Fire Protection District board unanimously approved participation in the study on Monday. 

Intended as a prototype for communities statewide, the $80,000 study builds off of the university’s research that followed the devastating Camp Fire in Paradise last fall. Dr. Louise Comfort, a visiting scholar at the U.C. Berkeley Center for Information Technology Research in the Interests of Society, or CITRIS, is one of the primary researchers. 

“Bolinas is a very good candidate community for this study,” Dr. Comfort wrote to the Light. “It has some of the same physical characteristics and demographic characteristics as the town of Paradise and other small communities in California: difficult ingress and egress, limited resources to cope with a major hazard, such as a rapidly advancing wildfire. Yet [there are also] informed, aware community leaders who are committed to taking measures that would reduce risk for the community.” 

Dr. Comfort’s department conducted research after the Paradise fire that examined the difficulties of the large-scale evacuation and drafted new strategies for creating a more effective emergency response plan. Building off of this analysis, the researchers now have more complex traffic simulation tools to use in the Bolinas study. 

“Reviewing the bottlenecks identified during the Camp Fire evacuation, this project will build a regional framework for conducting combined traffic network and communication network analyses at a regional scale,” the project proposal states. “Currently, the capacity constraints of the exit routes are widely considered the main causes of prolonged evacuation, while the effect of traffic operations at the destination towns is largely overlooked.”

Dr. Kenichi Soga, a professor in Berkeley’s civil and environmental engineering department and a principal researcher for the project, elaborated. “We will examine how the evacuation process is influenced not only inside and near Bolinas but also the Bay Area as a whole,” he wrote. 

Evaluating the current emergency communication strategies—and exploring technologies that could be used if cell towers go down—is a key component of the analysis, he emphasized.   

With the fire board’s approval on Monday, the study can begin this month. The university’s Institute of Transportation Studies footed the $80,000 bill and will do most of the labor, requiring minimal assistance from the Bolinas volunteer fire department. 

At Monday night’s board meeting at the Bolinas firehouse, Anita Tyrrell-Brown—the chief for the past 15 years who officially passed the baton this week to Bolinas native George Krakauer—cautioned hasty comparisons between Paradise and Bolinas, considering the differences in population and topography. 

There were 26,682 people in Paradise, compared to 1,620 in Bolinas, according to the 2010 census. Topography greatly affects the behavior of fire, which tends to burn up-slope: Paradise is bordered by two canyons at the foot of the Sierras, while Bolinas sprawls across an oceanside mesa.

As far as evacuation challenges, however, Ms. Brown agreed that the towns, like many statewide, have similarities. 

Though the university will not fund any future implementation of an evacuation plan, when the study is completed next summer Bolinas can expect to receive recommendations for its best means of evacuation. 

Residents can expect several alternatives. Scenarios will be developed to represent a range of possible evacuation and coordination situations, comparing the effects of different traffic strategies—such as utilizing all lanes to go one direction and holding stoplights on green—against the projected speed of a wildfire. The scenarios will also include alternative communication methods among key organizations and residents of both evacuation and destination towns.

The project will also evaluate the need for additional road or communication infrastructure and identify any inadequacies in local policy, practices and available resources. 

The study has named several reviewers for the project, including Michael Mohler, the deputy chief for communications at Cal Fire, and David Eisenman, director of the Center for Public Health Disasters at the University of California, Los Angeles. Judith Shaw, a Bolinas resident who originally contacted the researchers, will also serve as a reviewer. 

Ms. Shaw first saw Dr. Comfort’s name in a New Yorker article published last fall concerning the lack of preparedness in the 2008 earthquake that struck Indonesia. At the time interested in the possibility of establishing an emergency siren in Bolinas, Ms. Shaw contacted Dr. Comfort, who agreed that Bolinas would be a good case study. 

“I think this is a fantastic opportunity,” Ms. Shaw told the board on Monday. 

Her sentiments were echoed by several other residents in attendance, some of whom offered to volunteer their time to show the researchers around town, if needed. 

Longtime resident Anna Gade told the board, “This is a discussion that is ongoing in our community, and so I urge the researches in their recommendations to consider: let’s add another road to get us out of here.”