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‘Plan now’: Yuba County says Oroville Dam spillway incident good lesson on why residents should be ready before an emergency

Firefighter protection clothes and a respiratory mask.
iStock
Firefighter protection clothes and a respiratory mask.

Like the rest of the North State, peak fire season is well underway in Yuba County. In the last week, the county issued evacuations for three separate fires, including the Rices and Sandra fires, and one in the community of Olivehurst on Saturday.

All evacuations have since been lifted for those fires, and Russ Brown, Yuba County’s media and community relations coordinator, said residents should use the time to their advantage — by preparing for possible future evacuations.

“Those who had their go bags ready, they were [evacuated] to safe distances like Sacramento within 45 minutes. Whereas people who did not pack in advance, they went out and they had to go pack their bags. And it took them … four, or five, or six hours to travel 30 miles.”
— Russ Brown, Yuba County’s Media and Community Relations Coordinator

“When it's really quiet, that's when people need to do most of their work to get ready,” Brown said.

Being ready for evacuation, he said, means signing up for emergency alerts, knowing your evacuation zone and having a go bag packed. Depending on the time of year, Brown said, Yuba County residents can expect evacuations to be issued due to future wildfires, or floods.

Brown pointed to the Oroville Dam spillway crisis five years ago as an example of the importance of preparing for a disaster in advance. Anticipating the failure of a major spillway on the dam, about 188,000 people within the dam’s vicinity were ordered to immediately evacuate in February 2017. About 60,000 of those evacuees were in the Yuba County area, Brown said.

“Those who had their go bags ready, they were [evacuated] to safe distances like Sacramento within 45 minutes,” he said. “Whereas people who did not pack in advance, they went out and they had to go pack their bags. And it took them … four, or five, or six hours to travel 30 miles.”

The point of a go bag is to be able to leave quickly with important items. Officials say people living in disaster-prone areas should have a go bag ready before an emergency happens. The Yuba County Office of Emergency Services recommends residents make sure they have a go bag packed with crucial documents, house and car keys, medication, cash and other essential supplies.

“It’s going to have everything they need that they really want to hang onto, all packed up, all year long, and ready to grab,” Brown said. “I mean, I keep mine in my car so it's always there. … I can just leave and go at a moment's notice.”

“We always ask people to have those backups, those family members, friends, to kind of check up on you. And you can check up on them to make sure they got the message,”
— Russ Brown, Yuba County’s Media and Community Relations Coordinator

Brown also urged residents to look up their evacuation zone now so they don’t have to try to find it during an emergency. Yuba County uses the company Zonehaven to map its evacuation zones and issue evacuation information.

“People need to go on to Zonehaven, put in their address, and find out what their zone is and memorize that zone, write it down, always look at it,” Brown said.

When evacuations are issued in Yuba County, Brown said residents will hear and see local officials putting out “odd” numbers or codes, such as YUB-E037 or YUB-E107. Each of these numbers represents a specific area in the county that’s been zoned and mapped for evacuation purposes.

“If you know that code, and you have it pasted on your refrigerator, then you know you're evacuating,” Brown said.

While much of Yuba County is located in the valley — allowing for good cell signal and broadband coverage — Brown said that areas in the county’s foothills may receive spotty or no coverage. People living in these areas, he said, should make an evacuation plan with their family and community members.

Having systems to communicate with neighbors and relatives can help spread evacuation information quickly, Brown said. He refers to these types of arrangements as “backups.”

“We always ask people to have those backups, those family members, friends, to kind of check up on you. And you can check up on them to make sure they got the message,” he said.

People who need extra time to evacuate are especially encouraged to have these types of backups and to be ready for an evacuation. This group can include seniors, people with livestock and those without reliable cell service.

“It’s important to plan now rather than wait,” Brown said.

Yuba County residents can learn more about being prepared for an emergency at bepreparedyuba.org.

Jamie is NSPR’s wildfire reporter and Report For America corps member. She covers all things fire, but her main focus is wildfire recovery in the North State. Before NSPR, Jamie was at UCLA, where she dabbled in college radio and briefly worked as podcast editor at the Daily Bruin.