News

Pandemic prompts new evacuation procedures

Perry Van Houten, Ojai Valley News senior reporter
County officials are changing the way they conduct evacuations during emergencies such as wildfires, due to the pandemic.
During emergencies, sheltering in a congregate setting as it has been done in the past, in partnership with the Red Cross, is now Plan B, according to Patrick Maynard, director of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services. “For obvious reasons, we don’t want a large mass of people congregating at one location, inside a building, if at all possible,” Maynard told the Ojai Valley News.
To that end, the county has established Temporary Evacuation Points, places where residents will “rally” before being sent to a sheltering location.
During an emergency such as a wildfire, people signed up with VC Alert will get a notification on their phones telling them to evacuate and the location of the TEP, Maynard said.
In Ojai, the TEP would be Nordhoff High School, commonly known as the go-to place, Maynard said.
At the TEP, evacuees will be met by the Red Cross and county staff, who will take their information and give them a quick medical screening to make sure they don’t have any COVID-19 symptoms.
People will next be directed to a secondary location where sheltering will be done. “The Red Cross is looking to, as a first option, house displaced residents in motels or hotels,” Maynard said. “The Ojai Valley is a bit difficult because there aren’t a lot of motel options, so for folks in that area, there’s a possibility they’ll be sent to Ventura.”
If the medical screening at the TEP finds an evacuee has symptoms, they’ll be sent to a different location that’s better equipped to handle people who potentially have COVID.

 

Regarding evacuated pets, Animal Services will provide on-site shelter when available. “If that is not feasible, they will allow people to temporarily surrender their pets until they are safe to return home,” Maynard said.
Experience with recent wildfires across the state suggests that the county’s new plan is the right way to handle evacuations in the COVID environment, Maynard said. “The concept is common, but how each one operates is a bit different.”
The plan will require more people than ever to carry out, he added. “Not only are we staffing a shelter, we’re staffing a secondary location. The Red Cross has been a tremendous partner.”
In June, Ventura County revised the messages it uses in issuing evacuation notices, to bring the county in line with new state guidelines aimed at creating standardized terminology for evacuations. Voluntary and mandatory evacuations have been replaced by evacuation warnings and evacuation orders. An order is the equivalent of a mandatory evacuation.
During the Holser Fire that broke out near Lake Piru Aug. 17, the county issued an evacuation warning, and a TEP staffed by the Red Cross was set up in the city of Fillmore. “Nobody showed up to it, just because there was really nobody who got evacuated,” Maynard said.
Certain weekends and holidays can mean few vacancies at hotels and motels. In that case, Maynard said, “we would go back to congregate sheltering, with a ton of restrictions in place.” To allow for proper social-distancing, “we would reduce the capacity of that shelter from what it normally is down to 36 percent.”
Evacuees would undergo a medical screening before they enter the facility and would be required to wear a mask while inside the shelter, “which, for a prolonged period, can be uncomfortable,” said Maynard.
Maynard said training exercises on modified congregate sheltering have already been done in other parts of the county. TEP training is next. “It’s just really ensuring that the appropriate precautions have been established and exercised before they’ve been implemented, to ensure everyone’s health and safety,” he said.
TEP sites have been established countywide, Maynard said, and the Office of Emergency Services plans to have their locations included in the evacuation messaging. TEPs will have portable restrooms, hand-washing stations, hand-sanitizing stations and personal protective equipment, such as masks.
The pandemic should not cause second thoughts about packing up and leaving during an emergency, Maynard said. “We don’t want people to be fearful about evacuating because of COVID. Appropriate precautions have been taken,” he said. “We want people to be prepared to evacuate a little bit earlier. Things are potentially going to take a little bit longer.”
Leave early, leave often, and don’t hesitate, Maynard said. “If we’re evacuating you, it’s because we think we need you to leave. Heed those warnings and don’t wait too long.”

To sign up for VC Alert, go to www.readyventuracounty.org/vc-alert.