Fire district takes reins on Atherton evacuation plan
Atherton officials have cleared the way for the Menlo Park fire district to take the lead on disaster and evacuation planning for the rural Walsh Road neighborhood west of Alameda de las Pulgas.
The Atherton City Council, at its July 16 meeting, unanimously passed a motion endorsing a resolution by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District that offered the district's services as the lead agency to design a plan for the area.
Residents of the neighborhood, which has only one access and egress road, have been lobbying the town and fire district for some time to come up with a plan they can call upon in the event of a fast-moving wildfire or other emergency.
Frustrated with the slow pace of official efforts, an ad hoc group of the residents just before the July 4 weekend printed and distributed a brochure and map showing emergency evacuation routes — although the routes have yet to be vetted by the town or district.
In accepting the fire district's offer to take charge of the planning, the council added the caveat that fire officials are to "take into account Atherton Police Department comments" on the evacuation plan.
Residents had shown up at the council meeting to address the issue during oral communications, but the council voted 5-0 to add the topic to the agenda as an emergency item.
The night before, the district fire board discussed the issue at its own meeting, during which members of the ad hoc group of Walsh Road residents urged board members to take the lead on putting an evacuation plan into place.
"We need your help for a plan that's specific to our neighborhood," said Ginger Levick. Residents are willing to continue helping with the process, she added. "We are ready; we are motivated. Keep us going."
Berna Davis told the fire board that residents consider the evacuation plan they mapped out and distributed "a first version."
"We want a process and a timeline" for completion of a plan created by emergency services professionals, she said.
Fire board member Peter Carpenter, an Atherton resident and a key organizer of the ad hoc group, crafted the resolution offering the district's help to Atherton as the lead agency, and introduced it during the board's discussion.
The resolution passed unanimously after being amended to extend the offer to the city of Menlo Park and to the county so that the district could come up with a comprehensive evacuation plan covering the area west of Alameda de las Pulgas from Woodside Road to Alpine Road.
That area, designated a "mutual threat zone," crosses jurisdictional boundaries, and Menlo Park and San Mateo County would have to approve the district's leadership in devising an all-encompassing evacuation plan.
Board member Ollie Brown cautioned that the district must proceed carefully so as not to strain relations with Atherton and other agencies. And he noted that "police agencies must be involved in evacuation plans" — a sentiment echoed by other board members.
Progress being made
The town of Atherton is close to getting a signed memorandum of understanding with the Menlo Circus Club that will allow the private country club's grounds to be used as a staging area in the event of a major emergency, City Manager Jerry Gruber told the council at last week's meeting.
It's been difficult to determine who is responsible for creating evacuation plans, Mr. Gruber said, adding that if you ask three different people, you get three different answers.
"I do think that it's the police's responsibility to direct traffic and the fire district's responsibility to coordinate the response," Mr. Gruber said.
Mayor Jim Janz said that he and Mr. Gruber recently took a low flight over the Walsh Road neighborhood to get a bird's-eye view of it. "I don't think you'll find any lack of support on the council for this [evacuation planning] effort," he said. "This should have been done years ago."