Five years after the Witch wildfire led to a nightmarishly slow evacuation of Ramona, San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to pursue a new emergency route.
“This community faced a major headache during the evacuation process during the Witch Creek fire of 2007,” Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents Ramona, said Tuesday morning. “In short, the entire town was ordered to leave all at once, creating a massive gridlock on Highway 67 and a potentially tragic incident in and of itself.”
The evacuation route would cut through the county’s Grasslands Preserve and Ramona Municipal Water District property north of Ramona Airport to connect to Rangeland Road.
Jim Piva, Ramona planning group chairman, said the new route would help ease gridlock during an evacuation. People in north Ramona could avoid funneling into town and instead connect with Highland Valley Road, Archie Moore Road, and eventually State Route 67 farther south, said Piva. They could also continue west on Highland Valley Road toward Interstate 15, he said.
The vote by the supervisors, which was unanimous as part of the consent calendar, directs county staff to negotiate an agreement to open a portion of the water district property to the public during emergencies.
“This action will save lives and provides the people of Ramona another option in the event there is a need for people to evacuate, in the event of another emergency,” Jacob said.
Ramona water district, the county, San Diego Gas & Electric, CalFire, and the Ramona planning group have been working on the new evacuation route.
Because the water district did not receive the route’s draft legal agreement from the county in time for its board meeting this week, Piva requested it be added to the water board’s Oct. 23 agenda.
“I do believe today’s vote, which was unanimous, was a very positive event and the community will definitely benefit from it,” Piva said at the water board’s Tuesday afternoon meeting.
Water district director Joe Zenovic suggested the board schedule a special meeting at the evacuation route site and invite Jacob, the press, and planning group members so they can see where it is.
Bryan Wadlington, water board president, agreed, saying it would provide a valuable visual aid.
Ramona, with a population of about 40,000, is set in a bowl that limits the number of ways in and out.
SR 67, which goes south to Poway and Lakeside, is the primary highway out of town.
Winding State Route 78 goes west to Escondido but has only one lane in each direction. In the other direction, SR-78 goes to Santa Ysabel and Julian. In 2007, SR-78 was not available as an evacuation route because of the fire.
The only other way out is Wildcat Canyon Road, which runs south. Most of those killed in the firestorm of 2003 — the Cedar Fire — perished in the canyon area south of the Barona Indian Reservation.