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Portola Valley: Wildfire drill went well, officials say

About 30 residents in and around Los Trancos Woods evacuated in their cars to Portola Valley Town Center as part of a mock fire drill on Wednesday, May 7. The evacuation and the methods of notifying people were a key part of the Woodside Fire Protection District's third annual wildfire drill.

The order to evacuate came to affected residents at about 10:20 a.m. via a "push" phone call from Town Hall, said Town Manager Nick Pegueros. About 20 minutes earlier, most town residents had been notified by phone of an "aggressive wildfire" approaching the areas of Portola Valley Ranch, Los Trancos Woods and Vista Verde.

In concert with the phone calls, the county Office of Emergency Services issued alerts and the town notified the PV-Forum online chat room and played recorded messages on the town's new low-power AM radio transmitter. The radioed messages did not reach into parts of the hills, so evacuating residents did not pick up the signal until their vehicles came within range, Mr. Pegueros said.

The evacuating residents were "very excited" to be participating, Fire Marshal Denise Enea said. In fact, she said, the division of the Citizens Emergency Response Preparedness Program (CERPP) represented by Los Trancos Woods had asked to be chosen for the evacuation.

For the drill, senior staff at Town Hall broke out the gear for the Emergency Operations Center, Mr. Pegueros said. The EOC element ended at about 12:30 p.m. after transmitting many communications for a "vast array" of scenarios, Ms. Enea said. "I think they enjoyed themselves," she said of the staff. "They did a good job."

Among the areas of focus for evacuees: food, toilets, buses and costs. Costs? "You start to expend money quickly," Ms. Enea said. "You need to see who's spending what."

Residents had been preparing for weeks under the CERPP guidance, community leader Steve Friedman said in an email. The drill and evacuation were "a valuable learning experience," he said. "This gave folks a chance to think about what you would do in the event of an evacuation and gave them a preparation checklist."

Firefighters' views

"The drill went well from the fire district's perspective," said Battalion Chief Rob Lindner of the Woodside district. Aside from the runaway dump truck that hurtled down Westridge Drive, careered across Alpine Road, crashed through a fence, and came to rest above Los Trancos Creek after narrowly missing the assembled firefighters in the Ford Field parking lot, "everything went smoothly," Mr. Lindner said.

Firefighters from around the county participated. There is talk of holding a drill in other areas of the county next year, he said.

"We try to train together even if it's not an all-day drill," Ms. Enea said. The mutual assistance pact among county firefighting agencies is very real. "Over the whole county, the alarm plan is a single moving living thing," she said. "It's good to work together and it's an opportunity to learn."

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