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North County community still waiting for wildfire evacuation routes

Valley Center leaders cite several roads they'd like to add
VC Evac Map.png
Posted at 10:06 PM, Oct 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-22 01:06:58-04

VALLEY CENTER, Calif. (KGTV) - Valley Center leaders are calling on the County to build or improve roads that can be used as evacuation routes during a wildfire or other natural disaster.

"There have been some improvements to the infrastructure," says Valley Center Fire Protection District Chief Joe Napier. "But not significant improvements to the infrastructure since 2003."

2003 is a key date in Valley Center. That's when the Paradise Fire ripped through the community, killing two people who were trying to drive away from the flames.

Another North County fire, the Witch Creek Fire in 2007, burned nearly 200,000 acres and torched more than 1,800 buildings.

San Diego County commissioned a report in 2012 to identify new roads that could become evacuation routes. The 85-page report identified a dozen roads that could make evacuations easier for people across the city. It labeled six of them as "primary" routes.

According to the report, building those six roads would have cost $30.3 million in 2012.

Ten years since that report came out, none of the roads have been built yet.

"This is a tremendously important issue," says Delorez Chaves Harmes, the Chair of the Valley Center Community Planning Group. She says it's time to get those roads built.

"I care about my community, I care about my neighbors, I care about people that visit our community."

ABC 10News reached out to the County to ask why none of the roads have been built.

In a statement, a spokesperson told us "the implementation of these corridors is predicated on private development happening." The spokesperson pointed out a line in the report that says, "this plan should not give the expectation that the County will assume the responsibility for funding the roads identified."

County Supervisor Jim Desmond represents Valley Center. We contacted his office to see if he had tried to find any funding over the last decade to get the roads built. His staff declined to comment, instead referring us to the County Spokesperson's statement.

Chavez Harmes points out there has been new development in Valley Center. A new housing complex, Park Circle, is near completion, bringing more than 600 new homes to the city center.

And Census data shows the population of the city has grown by as much as 25-30% since 2010.

Still, Chavez Harms says infrastructure has not kept up. She's concerned about the people that live nearby, or people who drive through to get to nearby tourist locations like Valley View Casino or Bates Nut Farm.

"We need to make this happen," she says. "Not just for the people currently here in Valley Center, but for our new neighbors that are coming in."

Chief Napier points out, new roads aren't the only way to improve evacuations. He says the City and County have been hard at work to make sure the next evacuation runs smoothly.

Napier says he meets with County Emergency officials, the Sheriff's department, city leaders, and Cal Fire every month to go over plans.

They've also made minor improvements on existing side roads so they can handle more traffic.

And, Napier says, new technology like the website and alert apps make it easier and faster to warn people about fires, and tell them which roads to take.

"We can give them direction to evacuate to a particular point or just to head out a particular evacuation route," he says.

Still, he adds, he'd love to see some of the report's suggested primary roads built.

"Without wide paved evacuation routes that go to highway 15, without bypass roads that bypass main arterials, it makes it more difficult for public safety to get our community out in a general evacuation," says Chief Napier.

Of the 12 roads suggested in the report, Chief Napier points to four that he thinks would provide the most benefit.

One, which he calls "Road 19," would branch off of Mirrar de Valle, allowing people a way to go north or south to other roads.

Another, identified in the report as Road 8, would extend Mirrar de Valle to the 15 freeway.

Two other routes he'd like to see are Numbers 3 and 14 in the report. Number 3 would create another East/West corridor for evacuations in the northwestern part of the city. Number 3 would add a road near the mountains in the East near the reservation.

Chief Napier says it will be more difficult to get any of that built now, as costs and regulations have changed since 2012.

But as wildfires across California get bigger and more frequent, Napier and Chavez Harmes agrees something needs to be done to keep people safe.

"Look, this is our county," says Chavez Harmes. "Whether you're a developer, whether you're a homebuyer, whether you're board of supervisors, or whatever you are, let's work together to make sure that we don't have the tragedies that happened in Northern California."