SAN DIEGO - Five years after the Witch Creek wildfire led to a nightmarishly slow evacuation of Ramona, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to pursue a new emergency route that leads away of the foothills community.
*Click here to view a map of the proposed emergency route
"This community faced a major headache during the evacuation process during the Witch Creek fire of 2007," said Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents Ramona. "In short, the entire town was ordered to leave all at once, creating a massive gridlock on Highway 67 and a potentially tragic incident in and of itself."
No one ended up getting hurt while fleeing the flames, but residents spoke of spending hours in the dark creeping along the roadway in their vehicles. Ramona was mostly spared by the flames, which bypassed the town and roared downhill to devastate neighborhoods in Rancho Bernardo.
"Highway 67 would still be a vital link for us to leave in the event of another evacuation, but this would help relieve pressure on the highway," said Jim Piva, head of the Ramona Planning Group, who has been championing the alternative for years.
The new evacuation route would carry traffic from state Route 67 along a dirt road for about a half-mile across property just north of the Ramona Airport that is owned by the Ramona Municipal Water District. The route dumps out onto Highland Valley Road, which runs west into Rancho Bernardo.
"I know some people have said it's not a place where you can drive on, but you can, and if the proposal gets final approval, SDG&E has agreed to light it," Piva said.
The vote by the supervisors, which was unanimous as part of the consent calendar, directs county staff to negotiate the opening of the dirt road to the public during emergencies.
"This action will save lives and provides the people of Ramona another option in the event there is a need for people to evacuate, in the event of another emergency," Jacob said.
The semi-rural community, with a population of about 20,000 and around 20,000 more in surrounding areas, is set in a bowl that limits the number of ways in and out.
State Route 67, which goes south to Poway and Lakeside, is the primary highway out of town.
Winding state Route 78 goes west to Escondido but has only one lane in each direction. In the other direction, the roadway goes to Santa Ysabel and Julian. In 2007, SR-78 was not available as an evacuation route because of the fire.
The only other way out is winding, narrow and accident-prone Wildcat Canyon Road, which runs south. Most of those killed in the firestorm of 2003 -- the Cedar Fire -- perished in the canyon area south of the Barona Indian Reservation.
Because the alternative route goes through property owned by the water district, that board will need to grant its approval.
The next board meeting is in two weeks.