As a wind-whipped inferno 14 miles wide crested the hills of Malibu, for thousands of residents, Pacific Coast Highway was the only way out.
But when the Woolsey Fire raced toward the ocean on November 9, turning canyon roads into ribbons of flames, the highway became snarled by the volume of cars fleeing south to Santa Monica. The Malibu Times reported that it took some drivers up to seven hours to travel 20 miles to safety, a trip that would normally take about an hour.
“Everybody in that 14-mile range was being evacuated, and there was a very small funnel for thousands of residents and people to get out,” California Highway Patrol Lt. Kevin Kurker told the Malibu City Council earlier this month.
Even with the delays, the evacuation worked, for the most part. Three people were killed, but 250,000 residents ordered to evacuate got out alive.
LA might not fare as well in the next fire.
In September, drivers fleeing the Delta Fire backed up in traffic along the 5 north of Redding. As the fire burned close to the interstate, one couple escaped by driving through a gap in the center divider. But the fire moved so quickly that dozens of people deserted their cars and ran for their lives.
Two months later, the Camp Fire, which would become the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history, overwhelmed the city of Paradise. As a community of more than 25,000 tried to outmaneuver the fast-moving firestorm, evacuees became trapped in their cars. Of the fire’s 86 victims, at least 10 died in vehicles while trying to drive to safety, five in a single cul-de-sac.
As more and more residents are permitted to move into fire-prone areas, and as fires become more frequent, more destructive, and more unpredictable, experts say Los Angeles must reconsider how to evacuate—without relying so heavily on cars.
“Evacuations in some ways point out the major flaws in the system that we have on a day-to-day basis,” says John Rennie, who studies disaster planning as an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University. “The auto dependency we’ve built becomes even more problematic.”
From 2000 to 2015, the number of cars in Southern California has increased at four times the rate it did in the 1990s. In that time, the region added 2.3 million people and 2.1 million household vehicles, according to a UCLA study.
Residents aren’t just buying more cars. As Los Angeles expands, people are living closer to areas prone to fires. More than half of new homes built over the last four decades are located in car-dependent, high fire-risk zones known as the Wildland-Urban Interface. This week, Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors approved adding 19,000 new homes on wildland-urban lands.
At the same time, climate change is exacerbating the severity of disasters, says Lucy Jones, a seismologist formerly with the U.S. Geological Survey, who now works with cities to address disaster risk.
“With these new explosive fires—and I say new because due to extreme heat they grow radically fast—that creates a different evacuation issue than we have had for other fires,” she says.
But the solution isn’t widening roads through LA’s disaster-prone areas, experts say.
“Nobody is going to say, build a 47-lane freeway straight to the middle of the suburbs of Los Angeles,” says Brian Wolshon, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Louisiana State University. “We’re not going to build a road just for evacuation. What we can do, though, is get emergency agencies to better manage what we have.”
As witnessed during the Woolsey Fire, even roadways like PCH that are built for high volumes of cars can become gridlocked when many evacuees use them at once.
In his role designing evacuation plans for cities, Wolshon was confronted with a scenario similar to what Malibu officials faced on PCH: allowing all 25,000 residents of the Florida Keys to leave within a 24-hour period on a single highway.
The state wasn’t going to widen U.S. 1, which hops 100 miles from island to island through sensitive marine environments (the small cities along the Keys didn’t want more lanes of traffic built through their communities anyway).
Wolshon’s team proposed solutions that rerouted traffic on existing streets, managing the flow of cars and reducing conflicts that might cause crashes. The plan was successful for the evacuation before Hurricane Irma in 2017.
As traffic backed up on PCH on November 9, city and county agencies worked together to implement a similar solution in Malibu, using what engineers call “contraflow.”
The two northbound lanes of PCH were converted into southbound lanes all the way to Santa Monica. More cars could travel south at once—but then the westbound 10 freeway also had to be rerouted so it wouldn’t send cars northbound on PCH, backing up that traffic into Santa Monica’s side streets.
It’s a familiar phenomenon for Angelenos who drive to major sporting events. Evacuations put tens of thousands of people onto a handful of LA streets in the same way a Dodger game does.
Traffic management plans for evacuations pull from the same toolbox as getting people in and out of Chavez Ravine—adjusting timing on traffic signals, closing streets to detouring cars, and introducing contraflow lanes. But even with those measures, when most Dodger Stadium fans leave at the same time, there’s congestion.
“The same principle applies to an evacuation in an emergency,” says Dan Mitchell, an engineer with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. “If everyone is leaving at the same time, it’s going to take longer to get out.”
Mitchell agrees with Wolshon that just because those streets might serve 50,000 extra people on some days doesn’t mean the streets should be extra-wide all the time. That would make the city even more dangerous, says Mitchell.
“When streets have a lot more space than people need, that invites people to go very quickly and that puts people in danger,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, our city would be unlivable.”
Over the last five years, city officials have embarked on an effort to put an end to the startling high number of people killed in traffic collisions on LA’s streets. In some cases, that has meant putting in road diets to prioritize safety over speed. Those redesigns are opportunities to make streets perform better for a wide range of scenarios, says Mitchell.
“When we reconfigure roads, our goal is safety—that means both safety in usual circumstances as well as in unusual circumstances,” he says.
“This is a ‘yes, and’ situation,” says Emilia Crotty, executive director of Los Angeles Walks. “Yes, California communities should have efficient evacuation plans for these extraordinary fire events. And communities should have safe street design that prevents the all-too-common traffic collisions that kill thousands of people in our state every year. We do not have to choose.”
After this year’s deadly firestorms, residents opposed to road diets are trying to make the argument that disasters are grounds to eliminate the city’s safety improvements entirely.
Last month, the Los Angeles Times published a story with the headline: “Paradise narrowed its main road by two lanes despite warnings of gridlock during a major wildfire.”
The story documents how city officials had reconfigured vehicular lanes as part of a larger corridor improvement project on a half-mile stretch of Paradise’s main road, Skyway, in order to prevent traffic deaths.
(A representative from the Butte County Association of Governments, which managed the Skyway corridor project, declined to comment for this story, as did a spokesperson from Whitlock & Weinberger Transportation, Inc., which served as project consultants.)
But Skyway was not actually narrowed by two lanes, as the LA Times headline claims, says Nat Gale, director of Toole Design’s Southern California office and former director for LA’s Vision Zero initiative, who reviewed planning documents for the Skyway project.
There are still three vehicular lanes, an important distinction, he says, because in that three-lane configuration, the middle lane becomes a designated center turn lane.
That center turn lane is designed to help reduce conflicts between cars. It can also allow emergency vehicles to travel more quickly and make turns in either direction instead of negotiating lane changes.
In Skyway’s case, the reconfigured road was also designed specifically to implement contraflow in an emergency. All three lanes were converted to southbound traffic during the Camp Fire evacuation, says Scott A. McLean, the deputy chief for Cal Fire, who was in Paradise that day.
But the supercharged fire was throwing out embers ahead of itself, starting new fires miles away. The city’s evacuation plan, designed to empty the city in phases, had to be abandoned.
“Fires don’t commonly do that,” he says. “They had it all figured out so traffic would flow, but this fire enveloped a huge swath of land. A large amount of people had to leave and leave now.”
As the LA Times story notes, Skyway also became gridlocked during a 2008 wildfire in the foothills of Butte County—long before the road diet had been installed. The 2008 Humboldt Fire prompted a grand jury investigation that concluded the city should improve its evacuation procedures, which Cal Fire used as a statewide model, says McLean.
“They had contraflow. They had brochures. They had a community meeting every year. They had an evacuation plan in print down to the number of cones waiting at each intersection,” he says. “Paradise was prepared.”
Even with six ways out of the city, it was not enough, says McLean. “Surface streets do not have the ability to evacuate an entire community at once. If an interstate can’t do it, you know your surface streets can’t do it.”
The LA Times story notes that it’s “far from clear” whether the road diet contributed to the Camp Fire’s fatal traffic delays, but the headline does infer blame, and now some Los Angeles residents are holding it up as a reason to stop more road diets here.
This month, LA’s road diet opponents cited Paradise in a presentation to the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition, a group of LA’s neighborhood council leaders, and at several other neighborhood council meetings, proposing to “remove all traffic calming measures, including, but not limited to, road diets” which “dangerously narrowed emergency evacuation routes.”
The same opponents have also tried to block road diets on coastal roads because they are located in tsunami evacuation zones.
But Karl Kim, executive director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center and professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Hawaii, who specializes in evacuations, including those for tsunamis, disagrees with those arguments.
“To think road diets are the cause of the problem is a myopic response,” says Kim. “Depending on the situation, it might be the case that bike or pedestrian evacuation may be preferable to cars.”
Kim has a long list of situations where he says the the presence of cars can actually make evacuations more dangerous.
“Congestion, accidents, stalled vehicles, gas lines, parking,” he says. “[There are] many other externalities associated with motor vehicles.”
That’s why cities that face tsunami or flood risk are now designing “vertical evacuation” centers, structures that allow many people to quickly get to higher ground without using roadways.
In LA, parked, crashed, or abandoned cars remain the biggest obstacles for both evacuees and emergency vehicles, which is why the city implemented a Red Flag Warning policy in 2005.
The warnings trigger no-parking zones on narrow, winding streets on days when fire risk is high. But these haven’t been updated to consider the new realities of extreme heat and drought, as well as over a decade of new development. Last month, the Los Angeles City Council passed a motion to conduct a comprehensive street system assessment that would allow the city to draw up new no-parking zones and revised evacuation routes.
Using Census data, engineers use emergency modeling software to create travel demand forecasts that can identify evacuation issues for planners to address. These forecasts are so sophisticated they can spot potential bottlenecks like places where drivers are likely to change lanes—including anticipating how traffic patterns might change after road diets are implemented.
But when it comes to evacuation modeling, estimates for travel times rely on people leaving when they’re told to leave. If everyone waits until the last minute, which is a common problem in evacuations, or, if the fire moves too fast to empty a city, as it did in Paradise, the plan simply won’t work as well.
After both the Camp Fire and the deadly 2017 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, officials said they delayed or didn’t fully deploy emergency warnings due to worries of mass gridlock—which could have been addressed by giving residents evacuation alternatives that didn’t require cars, says Wolshon. A better solution for wildfires specifically is to design temporary refuge areas that allow more people to shelter in place.
“You could put a structure right in the local community and shelter 1000 people within walking distance of their homes,” he says. “You don’t have to drive 50 miles necessarily.”
Cal Fire deputy chief McLean says the ideal refuge area for fire would be a football field, a large grassy space with protection from radiant heat. In Paradise, he helped several people to safety who had survived the fire by going to designated parks.
Jones points out that in areas prone to debris flows, roads may not offer the best escape option—some are designed so mudslides will travel down the roadway instead of churning through homes in increasingly populated wildland-urban zones.
“What we really want is to be in a situation where we don’t have to evacuate,” says Jones. “But that means you can’t be in the WUI. You have to be building something better than our building codes require. We’d have to do something about our old buildings, and be much more aggressive about land use around drainage paths.”
Those are challenges local lawmakers haven’t been willing to confront so far—even as LA’s residents are placed into increasingly dangerous situations as the city’s population ages.
Of the 86 people killed by the Camp Fire, the vast majority were older, disabled, and could not or did not drive.
“Many had physical disabilities and couldn’t flee,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “Some refused to leave, unable to see, hear, or smell the impending danger, or lacking the cognitive abilities to acknowledge it.”
The average age of those who died was 71, the paper reported.
The demographics of the Camp Fire victims are tragically similar to most disasters, which is why the greatest concern for emergency planners is how to evacuate people who don’t have access to cars.
In addition to the groups that many not be able to drive, like LA’s increasingly older population, people with disabilities, and school children, city officials need to think of other types of people who might not have vehicles at the moment disaster strikes. Consider, for example, the large numbers of tourists in LA at any given time.
Few U.S. cities have these types of comprehensive evacuation programs in place. LA’s transportation department confirmed it has deployed vehicles to help get people out of neighborhoods during fires in the past, but the LA County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to queries about how residents who don’t have access to vehicles are located and evacuated.
“It’s a sad, unfortunate reality,” says Rennie, who works with cities to plan multimodal evacuations. “Only places that have experienced a disaster are more likely to plan for the successful evacuation of vulnerable populations.”
During Hurricane Katrina, an estimated 100,000 people couldn’t leave New Orleans, because they didn’t have access to vehicles, including many of the over 1,000 people who died in the city. In the aftermath, New Orleans designed the nation’s most comprehensive public evacuation plan, and the nonprofit Evacuteer works with the city to make sure people get to safety.
In addition to training a team of over 500 volunteers and holding education events, Evacuteer worked with artists to create 17 “evacuspots” in neighborhoods with low rates of car ownership. In an emergency, local residents know that they can walk to these locations to board circulating vans and buses, ensuring that no one gets left behind.
Someday, shared automated vehicles, which could theoretically travel more efficiently without humans behind the wheel, might help get more people to safety under hazardous driving conditions.
Even ride-hailing platforms like Uber and Lyft, which often offer discounts in emergency situations, could help people easily pool rides.
The terrain of California’s most fire-prone neighborhoods also calls for more localized and nuanced approach to evacuation. Depending on where some people live, it’s simply not feasible to evacuate using cars.
After a 1991 fire in the Oakland Hills that killed 25 people, a group named the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association formed to help create and maintain evacuation paths in the steep, densely populated hillsides. As the association’s president Colleen Neff told Curbed SF, the neighbors have come to terms with the fact that in certain emergencies, fleeing on foot might be the only option.
“On a good day, many of our roads are barely passable by one car going in one direction,” says Neff. “In the event of a fire or earthquake, with emergency vehicles going up the hills, it might be impossible for cars to go downhill.”
The Oakland Hills are very similar to LA’s canyon neighborhoods, some of which are already crisscrossed by public stairways. These narrow paths often provide a faster way to exit the canyon than the meandering streets.
But even well-used stairways in canyons like Beachwood aren’t clearly marked, and people who don’t know where they are might get disoriented during a fire. The Berkeley association’s work includes creating and maintaining paths, adding better signs and lighting to existing paths, and designing strategies to help older adults and people who might not be able to walk down stairs to get out safely.
Instead of envisioning a getaway vehicle packed with their belongings, experts say Angelenos must start thinking about having multiple ways to escape during a wildfire, flood, mudslide, or—perhaps the most likely scenario for much of LA—a ruptured gas line fueling a structure fire that tears through a neighborhood after a major earthquake.
“People want to protect their property and they don’t want to leave the car behind—there could be looting, or the car could be destroyed,” says Rennie. “But having a bicycle could really save your life if you’ve got traffic and you cannot drive out in a big automobile.”
Having a non-motorized vehicle in the garage could also come in handy long after the disaster hits, as Angelenos stare down weeks of power outages and buckled roads.
Looking at photos of the devastation caused by the 1996 Northridge earthquake, it’s remarkable how few cars are on the streets—yet in almost every photo, there are people riding bikes.
As Rennie puts it: “Having more options is better.”