Los Gatos residents say Google's Waze app causing gridlock, blocking only wildfire escape route

LOS GATOS, Calif. (KGO) -- Residents living in the Los Gatos hills and historic neighborhoods are blaming the popular navigation app, Waze, for blocking a wildfire escape route.

In their effort to build a better Bay Area, the Los Gatos Historical Society has created a campaign to get Google's attention. The tech giant bought Waze in 2013.

ABC7 News was in Los Gatos on Friday. Streets were seemingly peaceful, though neighbors explained there is plenty of gridlock during summer months and holiday weekends.

Jeffrey Siegel, President of the Los Gatos Historical Society, shared video with ABC7 News showing heavy traffic crawling through his community.

"In the summer weekends in particular, of course that road is completely backed up and jammed," he said, referring to the marked wildfire escape route near his home. "Where it's not moving."

He blames Google's Waze app for detouring Highway 17 drivers during congestion. The problem has created a nightmare for neighbors and has also ignited wildfire concerns.

Siegel pointed to the deadly fire in Paradise, and problems with people escaping to safety. He fears that could be the outcome if a wildfire were to hit the hills and historic neighborhoods.

"Their one and only escape route is this road," Siegel gestured to the street just behind his home. "It doesn't take much to bring that to a halt, and when it does, there is no escape."

He added, "The irony of all of this, from the Los Gatos Historical Society perspective, is these homes here- including mine- have been around since the 1800s. Back in those days, fire was the single greatest hazard to these structures surviving."

Resident Alison Ahmed lives along the marked wildfire escape route. She understands fast-moving fires and slow-moving traffic could have devastating, even deadly consequences.

"The traffic has just been terrible. It could be all day," she said. "We wonder what would happen in case of an emergency."

Emergencies aside, Ahmed said she's already feeling pinned.

"We get stuck in our house because the cars cut through on the street over there, and over there," she said.

"It's really affecting the community in ways beyond safety," Ahmed added. She said quality of life and mobility have become more difficult.

Quality of life, mobility, all made more difficult

Captain Bill Murphy with Santa Clara County Fire said his department is aware of traffic issues along the Highway 17 corridor. Though he admits there's little County Fire can do with mitigating traffic flow.

"To date, it hasn't impacted the response into the community," Captain Murphy told ABC7 News. "But I can understand the concern."

Real concern as response and rescue could be challenging in a region with elevated fire risk.

"Anytime we have a large amount of traffic in an area- particularly an area that's vulnerable to wildfire- that can impact our ability not only to get into the area, but can also impact our ability to get people out of harm's way," he said.

Murphy said County Fire is currently working with the Town of Los Gatos to make an assessment about evacuation options.

Beyond what's happening locally, he described one of the biggest projects in the state is happening along Highway 17. He said a fuel break is planned from Los Gatos in the North to Summit Road in the South.

The objective is to reduce fuel along Highway 17 and reinforce the roadway as a natural fire break.

"Nearly every single community that Santa Clara County Fire Department serves has an elevated fire risk," he explained. "Most of our hillsides surrounding the South Bay and particularly the West Valley are high or very high fire hazard severity zones."

Murphy agrees traffic is certainly an issue and added there has been an increase in traffic within most of the communities County Fire serves.

"So, it's something that we're constantly looking at," he said. "To date, we're still meeting our response time standards to all of the communities we serve, but it's something that we're constantly monitoring."

Meantime, Jeffrey Siegel has launched a wildfire campaign. Ultimately, he wants Google to put his neighborhood on a "no-fly zone" for future reroutes.

"If all this Waze traffic was happening at the same time as a wildfire, basically Google is signing their death sentence," he said.

In a published release, Siegel wrote, "The Los Gatos Historical Society, which is an advocate for quality of life in Los Gatos historical neighborhoods, today announced a campaign to assist the town's staff in raising visibility with the federal and state government, with Google investors, and with Google executives to bring an end to the life-threatening situation caused by Waze algorithms."

The release goes on to read, "The Google Waze app has choked off this single escape route by sending thousands of weekend beach-going drivers through these historic neighborhoods. In the event of a medical emergency or wildfire, these residents are literally trapped. With their single escape route blocked by Waze-routed traffic, these residents are living a death sentence imposed by Google."

Siegel pointed to the number of fires in the Santa Cruz mountains each summer and said the death toll could be far higher than what happened in Paradise.

ABC7 News has reached out to both Google and Waze for a response. This article will be updated to reflect any statement.

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