Flee or stay home? Some South Bay residents confused by wildfire evacuation orders

Amanda del Castillo Image
Thursday, August 20, 2020
Evacuation confusion in the South Bay, relating to SCU Lightning Complex fire
EMBED <>More Videos

In the South Bay, some residents report growing frustration over confusing evacuation orders as wildfires rage through the region.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- These five counties, Contra Costa, Alameda, Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Santa Clara make up what's called the SCU Lightning Complex fire.

About 20 separate fires, across the five different counties have torched more than 100,000-acres.

INTERACTIVE MAP: Track wildfires across Bay Area, other parts of CA

The massive SCU Lightning Complex fire put parts of Santa Clara County under evacuation orders and warnings on Wednesday.

However, instead of immediate alerts, residents said they've been relying on social media.

"This is where I've gotten most of my accurate information, is through Twitter," Jacqueline Garcia said.

She and her family have lived in the San Jose foothills for nine years.

On Wednesday afternoon, her home sat just a mile and a half from a neighborhood under evacuation orders.

She said the direction offered didn't paint a clear picture of who needs to leave.

VIDEO: Video shows terrifying escape through flames of LNU Lightning Complex fires

As if the call to evacuate wasn't scary enough, the road out was harrowing. One evacuee in Winters, Calif. recorded this as he drove through the fire while evacuating.

"Are you talking about us? How far up the mountain are we talking?" she asked, in response to the directive posted to Twitter by Cal Fire. "And that makes it really hard for the residents up here to really understand how close the fire is, or how urgent it is."

"It would be good for them to know," Garcia said, referring to Cal Fire. "And our state officials to know, and county officials to know that we just need a better system to be able to warn residents of when people need to go."

Cal Fire addressed evacuations in a video posted to Twitter.

"It can be very complicated," Unit Chief Jake Hess with the Cal Fire Santa Clara Unit said about evacuations. "Just know that we are doing everything in our power to ensure that these are smooth, and we are giving you plenty of time to get these warnings and orders executed."

Cal Fire did publish a live map of evacuation zones, as did Santa Clara County, but some are still confused.

Searching for answers, resident Estela Escalante used Twitter to reach the mayor.

"I told him where I lived and should I leave," Escalante explained. "And he was kind enough to respond and to say that my specific area wasn't being evacuated."

RELATED: Walbridge Fire: Evacuation warning issued for entire city of Healdsburg

After 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, San Jose Councilman Lan Diep tweeted: "If you live along Piedmont Rd., you are safe. The danger zone has not expanded to that area yet. I know some of you may have received text messages calling you to evacuate, but those messages are not precise. Do not panic."

The clarification posted to social media was just another example of the confusion felt by residents.

However, both Garcia and Escalante said they're already packed and ready to go, ahead of an evacuation warning.

"We're erring on the side of caution," Garcia told ABC7 News. "And we're deciding that we're going to just pack up, and we're going to find another place to be tonight. I don't want nightfall to come and for us to be here at home and just not know how quickly we need to leave."

BAY AREA WILDFIRES: The latest on evacuation orders, road closures, containment numbers

San Jose Fire Captain Mitch Matlow echoed the need for residents to be ready.

"When the evacuation order comes, get out now," he cautioned. "That doesn't mean 10 minutes from now, it means get out now. It means that the risk to life and property is real."

Garcia said she isn't blaming Cal Fire for the confusion. She shared words of gratitude for the men and women battling the massive wildfires.

She also added, "We'll depend on Cal Fire. We'll have faith in them... And hopefully we'll have a house to come back to at the end of this."

The City of San Jose developed a map for its residents to monitor who is under evacuation orders and warnings. It used information provided by Cal Fire.

For those evacuating, there are two evacuation centers for those impacted by the SCU Lightning Complex Fire: Creekside Middle School in Patterson and the Milpitas Library.