Those who live along the twisting, tree-lined San Juan Canyon Road, outside San Juan Bautista, may feel they live in an idyllic setting, but there’s always something a bit unsettling in the back of their minds—wildfires.
They know that if a raging fire came racing toward them time would be of essence and knowing which way to go that doesn’t end up at a dead-end road or locked gate is of utmost importance. Knowing how and where to evacuate can, quite literally, save lives. That’s why neighbors and friends along San Juan Canyon Road organized an emergency disaster drill June 21 that involved a lot more than meeting up at an agreed upon location and carpooling out of the area.
The San Benito Fire Safe Council, which is part of an organization of councils across the state that are active in minimizing the potential for wildfire damage to their communities, determined that there are two safe routes out of the area in case of wildfires.
“San Juan Canyon has been designated by CalFire as the most significant wildfire danger area in the county,” said Richard Pitschka, who lives in the canyon and was involved in organizing the drill. “We are very much aware of that, and we’re also very much aware that we have one road in and one road out of the canyon.”
Pitschka said the Fire Safe Council entered into negotiations with San Juan Oaks Golf Club and Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area to provide emergency evacuation routes. He said there have been some drills in the past, but it has been a few years since any were conducted and people have forgotten the way out.
“We decided we needed to get these roads marked because under a real emergency people wouldn’t necessarily be going out in a caravan,” Pitschka said. “There would be an evacuation order and people would just get out when they could. So, the route would have to be self-evident and they really weren’t.”
Personnel at Hollister Hills were the first to try to improve the situation by marking their gate off San Juan Canyon Road and putting markers along the road, he noted.
“The best route out of San Juan Canyon is actually to San Juan Oaks, and it wasn’t marked at all,” he said. “The Fire Safe Council decided it would be a good thing to have a drill where people would find their own way out and we would mark the road ahead of time so it would be much more self-evident.”
“Tony Canavarro, the chairperson of the Fire Council, and I went down that route, which we had been on a couple years before, and put in PVC pipes where we thought stakes should go because we had to get permission from Scott Fuller, manager of San Juan Oaks,” Pitschka said. “The interesting thing is we got a call from Scott the next day who said we had gone the wrong way. We went astray. We got reoriented and marked the route again and put in the stakes.”
During the drill, most people were able to find their way out, but a few did not.
“There are a few spots we need to improve, but that’s why we had the drill,” Pitschka said. “You want to find out where things work and don’t work.”
One of the important aspects of the drill was to practice radio communications. Pitschka said because phone lines could go down during a wildfire and cell phone reception is spotty in the canyon area. Eleven of the residents have obtained HAM (amateur radio) licenses.
“Every Thursday night we have ‘Canyon Net,’ which is affiliated with the San Benito County Amateur Radio Association, and we go on the air and check in; we move around to different positions in the canyon. We’ve been doing this for a while because we think it would be good in certain situations to be able to communicate among ourselves. We put that in the drill, too, and used a lot of radio communications to monitor what was going on along the route.”
Joan Lottermoser served as net control and when she left her position, Canavarro took over in a leapfrog maneuver. Pitschka said the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), which is under the Office of Emergency Services in San Benito County, which in turn, is under FEMA, had a significant role in the drill in order to practice working together as a team. Monitors at the end of the route were members of the CERT team.
“We tried to put a lot of different elements together to make it a more meaningful drill,” he said. “Also, the Red Cross set up an information station at the end of the route so they could let people know the kinds of services that would be available in an actual evacuation. From the Hollister Fire Department, Chief Jeff Granucci, was also there talking to people. We had good cooperation from the fire services, the Office of Emergency Services, the county, and in particular Scott Fuller, who was very helpful in putting this together.”
Pitschka didn’t know exactly how many people participated, but figured nearly half of those who live in the canyon did. At the top of the list of priorities was figuring out how to communicate along the entire road to let people know about the drill, and if there should be a real emergency. One method of communication was through a computer network, Nextdoor San Juan Canyon, in which 90 people take part.
“When things happen it’s a good way for people to find out what’s going on,” Pitschka said. “During the Cienega fire people in San Juan Canyon were listening to their radios on the Hollister Amateur Radio Association trying to find out what was taking place, and some people knew others in the fire department, and this information was being passed back primarily through the Nextdoor San Juan. So, we had a pretty good idea what was going on. We were very concerned about that because it’s only about 10 miles from the canyon and there’s only rugged terrain between there and here.”
The drill took place from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., and people who were spread out in zones throughout the canyon, checked into the radio network as the signal to begin was sounded.
“People were positioned around the canyon depending on where they live,” Pitschka said. “When they got the signal they drove up and down the canyon road using bullhorns to let people know that the drill had begun. Michael Linthicum of the CERT team leader was the one who gave the order to begin once everyone was in place. That was all done through HAM radio, which was kind of cool.”
There had been rumors that the drill was being conducted because of concerns about a PG&E gas line that runs under the road, but Pitschka said that was not the case.
“We’re aware that one of the most dangerous gas transmission lines in the state runs under San Juan Canyon Road and PG&E is in the process of upgrading it,” he said. “Planning for this particular drill started about a year ago when Tony brought it up at the Fire Safe Council.”
Pitschka said the drill allowed the residents to accomplish a number of tasks, including marking the routes, working out radio procedures and coordinating with CERT. He said there is talk of conducting another drill later in the summer with the planned escape route being through Hollister Hills rather than San Juan Oaks.