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Evacuation Lessons Learned In California


Here in California, we're monitoring yet another wildfire that exploded this morning about 70 miles up the coast from us here in LA. Meanwhile, in Northern California, some relief. Most of the residents who evacuated because of the Kincade wildfire are returning home. We're talking about more than 185,000 people. It was a massive evacuation that could provide a blueprint for future fires. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Last night was one of the stranger Halloweens in Windsor, Calif. A small group of kids, including 7-year-old Alejandro Alvarez, dressed as Godzilla, was practically alone in a neighborhood normally bustling with October 31 action.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Trick or treat. How are you guys?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Welcome back, neighbor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes, welcome back. Windsor strong.

GOLDMAN: The candy bags filled more slowly than usual, but no one was complaining, considering that two nights before, this neighborhood - this city of 28,000 - was empty. Windsor was completely evacuated last Saturday. The day after, town officials were told they should expect to lose a huge part of the town to the raging Kincade wildfire.

STEVE MCCANN: Saw the wall of flame coming down the draw. It was a very scary situation watching it live.

GOLDMAN: Steve McCann watched on his security webcam from the safety of San Francisco. He's lived in Windsor for more than 20 years. He also watched and marveled at the firefighting tactics that saved his home.

MCCANN: They were so fast and efficient, it brought tears to my eyes. They came through. They did what they needed to do. They dropped their hoses, got stuff out, threw the hoses back in an engine and went over to the next block.

GOLDMAN: There were no houses destroyed by fire in Windsor thanks to these fast and furious tactics that allowed firefighters to focus on houses instead of people who stayed behind.

MARK ESSICK: I think the willingness of people to listen to the evacuation order and pay heed to that makes this a huge success.

GOLDMAN: Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick is the one who gave the early and mandatory evacuation orders. He says he was guided by science and weather forecasts and fire experts and by very recent history. In 2017, the Tubbs fire killed more than 20 people in Sonoma County. Last year, the Camp fire farther north killed 86.

ESSICK: You don't want to make decisions totally based on emotion, but in this particular case, those experiences weighed heavily in my mind.


RUSS GAYDA: This was my house. There's the Volkswagens over there, burnt to a crisp.

GOLDMAN: For Russ Gayda, the Tubbs fire is never far from his mind. He played us a video on his phone he recorded after the fire destroyed his house and so many others in the Santa Rosa neighborhood.

GAYDA: Kind of sobering, isn't it?

GOLDMAN: Gayda has rebuilt. His new house has concrete siding. He sounds undaunted in the face of two evacuations in three years.

GAYDA: This is my home, and why leave? You can't - you're not going to run me out of here.

GOLDMAN: Even though there are probably more wildfires to come.

Are you ready for this every year?

GAYDA: Going have to be. Going to have to be. I mean, our Earth has changed to the point to where - nothing we can do about it unless we do a whole lot of things different.

GOLDMAN: Gayda rebuilt, and he's staying put. His neighbors, the Dillions, also rebuilt for the last time.

SUE DILLION: Never, yeah. Never again.

GOLDMAN: That's Sue Dillion.

DILLION: If we lost our house this time, we said, we're moving out of the state. This is it. We won't rebuild again.

GOLDMAN: Talk to people in this area, and you hear them say how appealing it can be - also, obviously, dangerous. And despite the apparently successful evacuation plan, many throughout Sonoma County are wondering - again - whether they can live with those two extremes. Tom Goldman, NPR News Santa Rosa, Calif.


Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.