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 evacuation route that it will open to the public for viewing at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 1.
The county will conduct the evacuation route open house with the Ramona Community Planning Group. The planning group will hold its monthly meeting that evening at 7 and will welcome questions and comments about the route. The meeting will be in the Ramona Library Community Room, 1275 Main St.
North of Ramona Airport, the route would lead evacuees west on a dirt road through a portion of the county grasslands and across Ramona Municipal Water District (RMWD) property to Rangeland Road and eventually to State Route 67 or Highland Valley Road.
Visitors to the open house are asked to assemble near the gated access point off Montecito Way, just north of El Paso Street, where the route begins. Parking will be along Montecito Way. The route is a 12-foot wide dirt strip.
The tour will consist of a caravan that will return to Montecito Way upon completion. According to Ramona planning group Chair Jim Piva, the tour will not include the proposed route’s portion that would travel over water district property, as the county is still working on an agreement with the district.
Piva noted that there have been a lot of questions and concerns about the proposed emergency evacuation route.
“It’s not the only evacuation route,” Piva said, adding that it would just be a way to alleviate traffic heading out of town on Route 67 and help to avoid the bottleneck that occurred during the 2007 Witch fire.
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 route would not be allowed if it hadn’t been approved by the sheriff’s department and the Ramona Fire Department/Cal Fire as a safe alternative, he noted.
“Let the people see what it’s all about,” Piva said. “Hopefully it clears up some of the concerns.”
The vote by the supervisors, which was unanimous as part of their Oct. 9 consent calendar, directs county staff to negotiate with the water district to receive consent to use a portion of district land during emergency evacuations.
“This community faced a major headache during the evacuation process during the Witch Creek fire of 2007,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents Ramona. “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.”
“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,” she 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 Oct. 9 board meeting, 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,” he said at the water board’s Oct. 9 afternoon meeting.
At that 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. Board President Bryan Wadlington agreed, saying it would provide a valuable visual aid.
RMWD General Manager David Barnum said the water board will determine how to proceed with the county’s agreement at its Oct. 23 meeting, but the board needs time to discuss it and hear from the public.
“Our goal is to be accurate,” Barnum said.
The water board had concerns about SDG&E utility poles with guy wires along the RMWD portion of the route. SDG&E said it can move the guy wires and add shielded amber low-pressure sodium lights to three poles for better visibility in the event of a nighttime evacuation.
The water board also questioned environmental repercussions it could face due traffic on that property. The county agreement exempts the water district from the California Environmental Quality Act and includes an indemnification that protects the district from liability if the portion of its property is used for the route.
Ramona, with a population of about 40,000, has a limited 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.