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The Mill Valley City Council is ignoring the lessons of the Paradise Fire

Along with other long-time community leaders, Community Venture Partners has monitored the “Pilot Project” in the Parkway section of Miller Avenue (from Willow Street to Millwood), also referred to as the one-lane plan, which we have been told has “temporarily” narrowed the existing roadway from two lanes in each direction (in and out of downtown) to one lane each way.

As discussed in my previous articles and those by Burton Miller, John Palmer, and former mayor Ken Wachtel, our shared concern regards the emergency evacuation dangers in the event of a catastrophic canyon fire. This is not an emotionally driven concern, but one based on facts.

Miller Avenue is Mill Valley’s major evacuation route out of town in the event of a catastrophic canyon fire.

The CAL FIRE “Fire Hazard Severity Zones” maps designate Mill Valley as being in a “High Fire Hazard Severity Zone” (VHFHSZ), which indicates an area that has the highest potential fire danger in the state of California. Mill Valley is actually one of only a few places in Marin County with this designation. In fact, according to those maps, in the assessment of CAL FIRE Mill Valley presently has an even higher potential fire danger ranking than the Town of Paradise had at the time its fire destroyed it.

In spite of this, the City Council has repeatedly ignored well-reasoned arguments presented by community members to abandon the one-lane plan, failed to adhere to CEQA requirements for impact assessments by claiming non-existent exemptions, and supported a one-lane design that violates basic FEMA emergency evacuation guidelines for minimum, egress roadway width.

In response, CVP has contacted the Region 9 offices of FEMA and is in the process of submitting a formal request for FEMA to review this entire matter and assess Mill Valley’s legal and financial liability as a consequence of the City’s decision. Unfortunately, with the government shut down in place, there’s no way to know if they will be able to respond in time for the public hearings that are planned for this month.

Our desire is not only to have FEMA address our concerns about what the City is attempting to do, which we believe will endanger the lives of all Mill Valley residents, but also to ask if the City Council’s decision to disregard FEMA emergency evacuation roadway guidelines eventually impact insurance rates for homeowners and businesses in the City? Will it also put the City at risk of being unable to procure its own insurance coverage?

Meanwhile, at the City Council’s direction, City Staff is preparing counter-arguments to enable the City Council to make a final decision to approve the one-lane plan.

The City is preparing to counter public objections before the ink is dry on their Analysis Report

In 2017, the Mill Valley City Council pledged to undertake an analysis of the impacts of the Pilot Project, but that only included impacts on traffic under normal circumstances. They failed to require any analysis of the impacts on emergency evacuation. Their entire emergency preparedness “analysis” in making the decision to approve the Pilot Project was to ask the Fire Chief, at a public hearing, if he “felt” it would be okay in an emergency event.

Unfortunately, our City and other cities in Marin County have a history of creating public processes that are designed to allow the City to dismiss objections and facts contrary to their goals (e.g., in this case, public petitions, the CAL FIRE zone designations, FEMA Guidelines, etc.). What we have seen in the past is the City finds a compliant consultant who writes a lengthy report to support the City’s predetermined conclusions about the merits of their proposal. Then this report – which is based on anecdotal evidence to back it up its findings - is utilized for a major marketing campaign about how seriously the City takes the issue at hand.

In Mill Valley the marketing campaign about the Pilot Project has been ongoing.

City Manager Jim McCann recently wrote the following to a concerned community member.

I know that you are aware of the myriad efforts and initiatives we have undertaken over the past 13 months in response to the wildfires of 2017. Chief Welch, the City Council, the Emergency Preparedness Commission, and our neighborhood and other volunteer groups have been tireless in identifying and implementing measures and programs to strengthen our substantial emergency preparedness and response foundation.

The lane configuration for the Parkway portion of Miller Avenue is a part of our much larger emergency evacuation planning which includes all portions of Mill Valley. We have been involved in revisiting and refining our established plans based upon the experiences of recent years regarding catastrophic fires in the wildland urban interface. Our work has included prevention and preparedness (especially vegetation removal and hardening of buildings to increase restiveness to fires) as well as communication tool improvement and access and evacuation improvements and planning.

Recognizing the nature of our community, we are improving our plans influenced by what we have learned from real incidents regarding the time needed to inform the community and to evacuate distinct neighborhoods [Emphasis added].

Also, over the past month we have collected traffic data specific to the lane configuration pilot project. We’ll present an analysis of this data in conjunction with the overview of the pilot project. Traffic on Miller is one element of evacuation planning that we are looking at;

We are also looking at traffic and travel out of the canyons and hillsides, and the role that “evacuation assembly areas” can serve as safe places in Mill Valley where evacuating residents can assemble and shelter in place, avoiding the need to drive in congestion to Hwy 101 [Emphasis added].

All that sounds great. The only problem is that it is exactly what the elected officials of Paradise told their constituents, and consists of the same types of evacuation planning the town of Paradise relied on before their town was wiped off the map by the 2018 firestorm. And again, remember, CAL FIRE considers Mill Valley to have a greater potential for a catastrophic fire than Paradise.

When the rubber met the road, it melted

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, How Paradise ignored warnings and became a death trap, authors Paige St. John, Joseph Serena and Rong-Gong-Lin II wrote:

A Los Angeles Times investigation found that Paradise ignored repeated warnings of the risk its residents faced. The fate of Paradise was cast long before a windstorm last month fueled the deadliest fire in California history. It was doomed by its… roads that paid no heed to escape… because for all the preparations community leaders made, they practiced for tamer wildfires that frequently burned to the edge of town and stopped — not a wind-driven ember storm.

In truth, the destruction was utterly predictable, and the community's struggles to deal with the fire were the result of lessons forgotten and warnings ignored.

Similarly, Mill Valley has been warned repeatedly by long-time community leaders and state agencies that it is in one of the state’s highest fire danger zones, and that narrowing the roadway of Miller Avenue, the City’s main evacuation thoroughfare, is an invitation to disaster.

In the case of Mill Valley, because we live in a box canyon, there is nothing more important than ensuring that there is adequate egress to handle massive, chaotic evacuation of all residents, simultaneously. That is the number one lesson of the Paradise fire.

Again, per the LA Times article.

The roads out of Paradise gridlocked within an hour of the first evacuation order, and began moving again only by a herculean effort of firefighters, police, bureaucrats and politicians who rushed to jammed intersections to try to unsnarl the knot, the benefit of having practiced for small fires.

In another three hours, hundreds of residents were trapped deep within town, cut off by flames. The town communications system was dead, as were cell towers. Police radios were crippled. People jumped from cars and fled on foot. Hundreds sought refuge in parking lots and commercial buildings never intended to be temporary shelters in a firestorm. The remains of scores of residents were found inside the homes they never left.

All this occurred in spite of (to use Mr. McCann’s own words) “the myriad efforts and initiatives we have undertaken” and the “tireless efforts” by all.

Per the LA Times, in Paradise

The disaster occurred despite the fact that Paradise was proactive about preparing for fire, not just with drills and plans, but advertising its warning system, promoting "pack and go" preparations by residents, and even writing fire precautions into public construction projects. City leaders believed no other California community, except perhaps fire-dogged San Diego, was better prepared.

A “feel good” roadway plan that sealed the fate for Paradise residents

In the same month that their County Grand Jury released a report warning the town of Paradise about their vulnerability to fire dangers, the Town Council was moving headlong into its plan to narrow its main evacuation route through and out of town, from two lanes to one lane. Their rationale for such a drastic change was exactly the same as Mill Valley’s.

With nothing more than anecdotal evidence, the Paradise Town Council approved the narrowing of their main thoroughfare from two lanes each way to one lane each way, because a few people said that “heavy traffic gave the strip an "expressway" feel.” [1]

As Mildred Eselin, and 88 year old resident, commented at that Paradise Town Council hearing, with regard to emergency evacuation risks, "If the council is searching for a way to diminish the population of Paradise, this would be the way to do it."

Another similarity between the facts and circumstances in Paradise and those in Mill Valley is that in approving the narrowing of their main evacuation route out of town in Paradise, the Paradise Town Council’s justification relied on the same type of staged neighborhood evacuation plans and evacuation assembly zones that Mill Valley is about to propose.

This point cannot be over-emphasized. The Mill Valley City Council intends to rely on the same managed evacuation strategies that failed so miserably in the Paradise fire.

My question is why is the world would Mill Valley do this?

There was only one lone voice of concern on the Paradise Town Council, who questioned their plan to evacuate distinct neighborhoods and have evacuation assembly areas. The Town Council’s final decision to ignore that voice of protest proved to be a tragic one.

And, there are even more similarities to the Paradise disaster.

The Paradise evacuation plan called for its newly narrowed, main evacuation route to be turned into one way traffic only (out of town) during an emergency. The Town Council claimed this was adequate because it “doubled the capacity for evacuation.”

Mill Valley has been incorrectly claiming the exact same thing about the one-lane, Parkway plan.

In addition, Paradise also held drills and practiced its plan, staging mock disaster scenarios and educating all residents about alternative routes, detours, and other such planning strategies Jim McCann’s confidence rests upon.

But it was all for naught in a real disaster. As the LA Times article noted.

Those estimates are without a rain of embers, burning obstacles, exploding propane tanks and heat blasts that melted tires. They do not account for roads that were blocked by falling power poles and abandoned cars the day of the fire or the two hours that it took police to establish one-way traffic.

Flaws in such planning are so common that former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate describes them as the "deadly sins" of emergency management: Practicing drills that guarantee success; assuming that plans can be scaled up when a massive disaster strikes; relying on government systems to work under pressure; failing to plan how to protect vulnerable populations, such as the elderly; and mistrusting the public, which often leads to not warning the public early enough. [Emphasis added]

Our fate is literally in the hands of the Mill Valley City Council

As it stands, a number of community leaders have repeatedly begged and warned the Mill Valley City Council to consider the hazards to which they are exposing us all, with their present course of action. And so far when the votes were tallied, community input contrary to the ill-conceived “one lane” plan, has been ignored by the majority of the Council.

Over the past 18 months, Community Venture Partners has conducted an ongoing Public Records Act request for documents, communications and records about the Pilot Project, and that history of how this project came into being and its questionable public process has been chronicled in previous articles on the Marin Post (The Hijacking of the Miller Avenue Streetscape Plan Part I, II and III).

It should be noted that the Mill Valley Planning staff and Danielle Staude, in particular, have generally done a good job responding to our PRA request, providing what documents they had (though many appear to have mysteriously gone missing or been destroyed). But the Mill Valley City Council has so far failed to acknowledge what our investigation revealed. Still, it’s worth noting that the City Council has not been unanimous in their support of the one lane plan.

Council members John McCauley and Jim Wickham have been voices of reason and voted against the one-lane proposal, citing public safety concerns. We certainly hope that other Council Members may now be more open-minded about concerns for public safety, considering what we’ve all learned about emergency evacuation and wildfires this past summer.

I urge all Mill Valley residents to get involved and to let the City Council know how you feel about the importance of adequate emergency evacuation capacity when they hold their final hearings on the one-lane versus two-lane Miller Avenue Parkway plan.

The potential public safety consequences of the “one lane” plan are just too great to allow it to stand.


[1] This is, verbatim, the reason given by the Mill Valley City Council to justify approving the one-lane Pilot Project.


Bob Silvestri is a Mill Valley resident and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded only by individuals in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area.