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  • Jeffrey Siegel

Legislation that Keeps Wildfire Evacuation Routes Clear of Waze-directed Traffic

By now, a large number of residents of the Bay Area, including 4,000 in Los Gatos, have experienced their first of what will likely be many power blackouts resulting from PG&E shutting off power during forecasted high-wind periods. Expect this to become the new way of life with the growing attention paid to wildfire risks in the wake of the Campfire wildfire which nearly completely destroyed the 19,000 residential and commercial structures of Paradise and caused the loss of lives of 85 residents.

There is an abundance of data revealing that wildfire risks are rapidly growing greater, with wildfires occurring more frequently and with greater destructive force than in the past. Climate change has created a growing wildfire danger for the town of Los Gatos, which ironically lost many of its residential and commercial structures to fires back in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. And the poor air quality during the wildfire season over the past several years has created yet another health-related issue for our residents. The problem is real and getting worse.

A recent USA Today special report published the findings from a nationwide study of wildfire risks reporting that Los Gatos has a super-high wildfire risk score, even higher than Paradise!

This isn’t surprising given the multitude of wildfires reported each year in the adjacent Santa Cruz mountains and the close proximity of Los Gatos being physically situated in the foothills of those mountains. Proximity to wildfires combined with strong winds and limited evacuation routes creates a ‘Perfect Firestorm’ life-threatening and property-threatening reality.

Regardless of the source of ignition – electric infrastructure faults, machinery or automobile sparks, arson, lightning, campfires, etc. – once ignited, the winds and dry brush can cause a small fire to become a massive conflagration in minutes, and one ember can travel over a mile on the winds causing one fire to become hundreds or thousands of fires as we saw happen in Paradise.

A map recently published on the town’s website, shows the extensive amount of Los Gatos residential property that sits in the wildlife urban interface (WUI), which is at greatest risk of wildfire. These would be the homes most likely to, and the first to burn. Looking at the WUI-map is an eye-opening experience, and it immediately becomes clear that Los Gatos residents, in the event of a wildfire, will need every possible road open and available for evacuation. Literally, every second counts when confronted by a fast-moving, wind-powered wildfire burning everything in its path. Even with a perfectly clear escape route, its questionable how many residents all traveling in their cars at the same time to escape a fire, would be able to get out given the traffic jam this would create.

This is why it’s all-important to public safety, that Waze and its competitors be banned from directing traffic into the path of pre-defined wildfire evacuation routes.

Compounding the problem is the fact that a great many of these WUI-situated homes are historic, with most built in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. With their large covered wood porches, dried out wood framing and siding, detailed wood accents, over a century worth of oil-based paints layers, and other factors – these homes are not only unfortunately sitting in the WUI, they are by far the most combustible. In the event of a wildfire, these homes would go up like torches, with little time for first responders to act.

This is why the Los Gatos Historical Society has initiated the enactment of legislation that will legally ban algorithm-directed traffic apps from sending thousands of beach-going drivers through pre-defined wildfire evacuation routes, including those in several of our historic neighborhoods.

What does this mean for Los Gatos?

It means that Waze and similar apps will be legally prevented from creating the congestion in downtown Los Gatos that occurs from thousands of beach-going cars flowing through (and blocking) our wildfire evacuation routes. One example of these routes is Overlook Road which is mostly a single-lane road used by residents of the uphill section of Los Gatos. Overlook Road flows down to Wissahickon, which in turn flows downhill on Hernandez and Pennsylvania Avenues into downtown Los Gatos. Without that beach-going traffic flow there would be far less traffic routed through our downtown.

All efforts to convince Google that its Waze app is causing life-threatening situations in the event of a wildfire has fallen on deaf ears. They have been informed multiple times of the problem but simply don’t care and continue with their rhetoric that the streets are public rights of way, meaning they can continue ignoring public safety issues. Legally they are correct. Morally they are bankrupt. ‘Do no Evil’ clearly no longer means anything to them.

This is why legislative action is the only effective path to stopping Waze and its competitors from contributing to the deaths of Los Gatos residents fleeing the hills and historic neighborhoods during a wildfire. With this in mind, on October 4th, a meeting initiated by the Los Gatos Historical Society, and including the participation of myself, our town mayor Steve Leonardis, the Santa Clara County Fire Chief Tony Bowden, and members of Evan Low’s legislative staff, met to lay the groundwork for progressing the legislative process that is intended to ultimately ban algorithm directed traffic from a one mile radius of wildfire evacuation routes.

Mayor Leonardis spoke passionately about the need to take wildfire threats seriously and Chief Bowden spoke with great authority to how his organization and CalFire view the problem and the clear value that a legislative solution would bring to saving lives.

This wildfire season is squarely upon us, and the new legislative season in Sacramento is just a couple of months away. The goal is to have this new legislation in place before next summer. Now we just need to hope that wildfires and Waze traffic don’t intersect before that legislation becomes law.

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