Evacuation planning lacks leadership, jury finds

01/06/2021

Choke points would abound in an emergency evacuation of West Marin. In Inverness, the problem is Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. In Bolinas, it’s Mesa and Olema-Bolinas Roads. And for the entire coast, any of the over-the-hill routes—through the San Geronimo Valley, past Nicasio or around Mount Tamalpais—would become congested if thousands of people were trying to leave at once. 

Despite this threat to public safety, nobody in Marin is taking responsibility to plan for evacuation, according to a Marin County Civil Grand Jury report issued last month. The 19-member watchdog group calls on the Transportation Authority of Marin to step up and include evacuation as one of its criteria when planning or funding projects. The grand jury also urges public works departments of cities, towns and the county to prioritize evacuation, and argues that these governing bodies should address evacuation infrastructure needs as they update their general plans. 

The Woodward Fire heightened anxiety around evacuation and prompted the grand jury to revisit the issue. Bolinas resident B.G. Bates fled the blaze despite it being miles away, because she feared a collective rush to leave town. “Once you get to Mesa Road, there are several places where the trees come up on both side and meet in the canopy,” she said. “It’s beautiful, but that’s not where you want to get caught. I think about it all the time: What are my solutions? It depends on which way the fire is coming from, I guess.”

Inverness resident Francine Allen is particularly worried about having to evacuate at the same time as thousands of visitors to the Point Reyes National Seashore. “It’s something I’ve been concerned about for a long time, and nobody seems to be thinking about it. It just hasn’t gotten any traction anywhere,” she said.

Preparing for an evacuation involves many interconnected components: educating the public, cutting back vegetation, improving mapping and signage, designating refuge centers and executing the evacuation during emergencies, along with actually building and improving the infrastructure to support a mass evacuation. The barriers to improving evacuation outcomes are both physical and political.

“In interviews with the grand jury, many officials expressed reluctance to take on these specific evacuation infrastructure challenges because of the enormous costs, potential litigation, environmental complexities, neighborhood resistance, and lack of authority,” the report states. “Furthermore, it is not clear who has responsibility for addressing this critical need. Nevertheless, the dire consequences of failing to address this challenge could result in a catastrophe that far outweighs the cost of improving our roads to support mass evacuation.”

Some public works directors told the grand jury that they believe first responders are in charge of plans, but law enforcement officers said they focus on evacuation only during active emergencies. Other elected officials anticipate that the new Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority will handle planning, but the scope of its work is limited and does not include infrastructure improvements. The Transportation Authority of Marin has denied that it has any role or responsibility for considering evacuation needs in its transportation projects, but the grand jury disagrees.

The transportation authority was established in 2004 as Marin’s congestion management agency, required by state law in every county. Funded by grants, a half-cent sales tax and a $10 vehicle registration fee, the authority is tasked with coordinating roughly $40 million in annual funding for a multitude of transportation projects, from improving routes to schools to widening the highway, all with the goal of improving mobility. 

The agency was chartered when traffic was high on Marin’s priority list and wildfire evacuation was a remote concern. But times have changed, and the agency hasn’t changed with them.

The jury first looked at evacuation routes in 2019 and made the initial call for the authority to prioritize evacuation projects and require that every proposed project consider its impact on mass evacuation. At the time, the authority responded that it “is a funding agency and does not set local policy.” But the grand jury argues that the authority is ideally positioned for the task, as the only entity with countywide authority over transportation projects. Because its board is broadly representative of Marin’s jurisdictions, it can support large cross-jurisdictional projects along Marin’s major evacuation routes. 

“Contrary to its previous responses to the grand jury, the Transportation Authority of Marin is not precluded or constrained from incorporating evacuation planning needs as a criterion in its infrastructure projects. The Transportation Authority of Marin’s decision-making process is inadequate unless it includes evacuation as a criterion when funding improvements,” the grand jury found.

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, who sits on the transportation authority board, believes that both the authority and departments of public works should revise their policies to look at evacuation when funding projects. “I think it’s a good idea, and it’s something they should do with all of their projects,” he said.

The transportation authority wouldn’t work alone. The Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority, composed of 17 fire agencies, was established last year and has a nearly $20 million annual budget. The agency has allocated $1 million for a traffic study of evacuation routes this year, a first step in identifying problem areas. The agency will also fund major vegetation management projects along evacuation routes and create evacuation route maps, but it does not have the ability or the funding for major infrastructure improvements, such as widening roads. Thus, the transportation authority should work with firefighters, and a transportation representative should serve on the wildfire prevention authority’s advisory and technical committee, the grand jury argued.

The buck ultimately stops with the Board of Supervisors. The jury calls on the board to adopt a resolution urging the transportation authority to consider evacuation needs in public works projects, and for the county to update the safety elements of its general plan this year to include evacuation planning. Each agency has until March 14 to respond.