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First Rossmoor evacuation drill is a success

Mutual 68 residents take part in effort to prepare for wildfire

By Mike Wood and Sam Richards

Staff writers

Dave and Judy Tedesco of Rossmoor, among the May 15 “evacuees” from Mutual 68, talk at Heather Farm Park with Noell Crosse, fire education coordinator at the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District. News photo by Sam Richards

Rossmoor’s first wildfire evacuation drill came to pass May 15 without significant hitches, providing residents and public agencies the chance to practice how they would respond in an emergency.

Residents from Mutual 68 who voluntarily signed up to take part in the drill left their manors upon receiving a 7 a.m. emergency alert call and drove in an orderly fashion via two designated routes through downtown Walnut Creek and to Heather Farm Park.

The opportunity to practice preparedness was lauded by residents of Mutual 68, the area designated as evacuation zone WCR-002.

Ralph Anthenien, the disaster response group lead for Mutual 68, was pleased how residents reacted in the drill. Around 110 residents, close to 30 percent of the Mutual’s population, signed up to take part.

“They were calm, and the stream of cars was orderly,” Anthenien said. “We learned a lot of good things. We found things we can improve on. It will help us, it will help Rossmoor, and it will help the city.”

The drill was the culmination of months of extensive planning involving officials from the city of Walnut Creek, the Walnut Creek Police Department, the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, the county’s Community Warning System, and GRF officials, led by Public Safety Manager Tom Cashion.

Margaret Campos of Walnut Creek’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), Fran Gibson of the Rossmoor Emergency Preparedness Organization (EPO) and Briana Taylor and Natalie Manier of American Red Cross were among the vital members of the exercise planning team.

Cashion deemed the drill a success, thanking residents for participating and for their quick and safe evacuation.

“This shows the importance of constantly educating and training our community to be emergency prepared so that we make Rossmoor even safer,” he said.

One hiccup came when some residents’ cellphones had the county Community Warning System (CWS) alert call displayed as a spam risk, Cashion said. This issue is being examined and will be addressed in a debriefing this week.

Cashion advised that residents who have signed up for alerts add 925-655-0195, the CWS caller ID number, as a contact on their phones.

“Granted, if it was a real emergency evacuation, CWS would also activate the alert on your cellphone like what happens when there is an Amber Alert,” he explained.

The morning began with more turkeys out and about than people. Staying warm in the cool morning air thanks to a blue Cal pullover, Pat Hines was out at 6:45 a.m. on her driveway on Grey Eagle Drive, carefully checking that her car was packed and ready.

“I’m doing this because I think it’s important,” said Hines, who has lived in Rossmoor for 20 years. “I would like to thank CERT and all of the teams who put this together.”

As alert time neared, a handful of residents along Grey Eagle Drive entered their cars, some starting them up for a prompt departure.

Bill and Wendy Dorband, who live on Quail Hill Court, were mostly ready to go long before the drill. They had “go-boxes” full of clothes, shoes and pajamas, cellphones and chargers, dozens of bottles of water and medications in a small silver box (“like a little safe,” Wendy said) in their SUV, and were ready to roll when the CWS phone alert came at 7:01 a.m.

Amal Moulik, left, and Dick Locke, both of Rossmoor CERT, stand near Rossmoor Parkway and Tice Valley Boulevard, where those being “evacuated” were split on to two routes to Heather Farm Park in Walnut Creek, News photo by Sam Richards

The quiet neighborhood was buzzing by 7:02 a.m. as vehicles came rolling methodically, calmly out of the cul-de-sacs onto Grey Eagle Drive for the trip down the hill to Rossmoor Parkway. About half the evacuees went down Grey Eagle; the others dropped down via Saklan Indian Drive to the parkway and out the front gate.

As the stream of vehicles approached the gate, a deer that was nibbling on the greenery in a Rossmoor Parkway median stopped to stare at the procession of cars.

Police guided drivers either left or right onto Tice Valley Boulevard, to one of two assigned routes to Heather Farm Park, where the “evacuees” were assigned to report.

Because it was early on a Sunday, driving was a breeze through normally congested downtown Walnut Creek. There wasn’t a noticeable backup until the left-hand turn lane from Ygnacio Valley Road onto North San Carlos Drive, the entry road into the park.

Cars waited to enter the parking lot for check-in with police officers and CERT volunteers at the temporary evacuation point (TEP) set up around the park’s first softball field.

Though many residents turned around at that point and went home, several stopped at an information station where they could talk to officials or get guidance on issues like checking home fire alarms.

Ernie Blanchette, who has lived here for 22 years, said he feels much more confident now that he participated in the drill. Blanchette said it took him about five minutes to get on the road after getting the alert from his home on Grey Eagle Drive; his manor is near the edge of a slope where he can see the “wildland urban interface” that prompted Mutual 68 to be tapped for this drill.

“It doesn’t take much to visualize how quickly a wildfire could spread,” Blanchette said.

His verdict on the drill experience: “Wonderful.”

The Dormands acknowledged things would have gone a little differently for them in a real emergency. Paintings by Bill’s mother that grace their condo’s walls would have been taken along, as other things likely would have, too.

“We’re not under the stress of an emergency; your adrenaline isn’t pumping,” Bill Dormand said. “But this is how you survive a crisis – by being prepared.”

Judy and Dave Tedesco, who’ve lived in Rossmoor for nearly 21 years, set aside items the night before but still grabbed more on the way out.

“We found out that in a real emergency, we would have not been prepared, but we were for this one,” Judy Tedesco said. “And it has us thinking about the real thing, which could happen at any time.”

The flow of traffic out of Rossmoor barely caused a ripple – there were no complications like stalls or, worse yet, fender-benders.

“There was the occasional person being confused … they were probably trying to go to Safeway and saw these (police officers and safety cones),” said Dick Locke, a member of Rossmoor CERT helping count vehicles.

Walnut Creek Mayor Pro Tem Cindy Silva, who is the City Council’s liaison to Rossmoor, said she came to see how all the months of drill planning came together. She also hopes the seriousness with which city, county and Rossmoor officials took the drill and its planning will help convince California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) officials to approve a grant of up to $5 million to the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District to pay for clearing brush to create a firebreak around much of Rossmoor.

Several participants in the drill said a future drill should include residents from two or three Mutuals, to better push the limits of the testing and gauge preparedness for a real community-wide disaster.

But for now, Deputy City Manager Carla Hansen said, “You’ve got to start with baby steps.”

Mutual 68 resident Mariko Kan said she was grateful for all who organized and carried out the May 15 drill. She was part of a real emergency evacuation from the CZU Lightning Complex wildfires in the Santa Cruz mountains in August 2020.

Knowing more about what a real evacuation might involve would have been invaluable for her then, when giant burning embers were falling outside her front door.

“It’s crazy, and scary, to go through that,” Kan said. “This drill was very useful, and it shouldn’t end here.”

Mayor Matt Francois agreed. His father lost his home in the Tubbs Fire that burned in Napa and Sonoma counties in October 2017.

“We know these fires can hit an urban community like this, and we need to be prepared,” Francois said.

“We definitely want to see more (drills) planned for Rossmoor,” he said.

Residents like the Tedescos realized they personally had more work to do.

“It was a wonderful start,” Judy Tedesco said. “We’re learning, and it is invaluable.”

Evacuation traffic departing Mutual 68 via Grey Eagle Drive is ushered toward the entry gate by Walnut Creek police, as vehicles leaving Mutual 68 via Saklan Indian Drive are held up. News photo by Sam Richards