Middletown Evacuation – Escape from the Valley Fire

Photo taken by a firefighter on SR 175 near Middletown on September 12, 2015

Photo taken by a firefighter on SR 175 near Middletown on September 12, 2015

On Saturday evening, September 12, Lake Transit’s operations contractor, Paratransit Services, received a call requesting as many buses as possible to Middletown to assist in evacuation due to the Valley Fire. Wanda Gray, General Manager of the Paratransit Services operations, responded with five buses to the southern access to Cobb Mountain. The bus drivers were asked to go to the entrance to Anderson Springs Road at Highway 175 where they would prepare for possible evacuations from the Cobb Mountain communities. (An additional six buses were dispatched to Kits Corner to assist with the northern evacuations.)

While the bus drivers were waiting for instructions, a distraught resident of Anderson Springs arrived. She wanted to go to her home to rescue a pet cat. A CHP officer at the scene told her that the road was closed and was trying to calm the upset resident. Meanwhile, as Ms. Gray was watching the flames on the ridge overhead, the sound of the fire intensified—“like a freight train!” as she would later describe it. She turned to her drivers and told them to get in their buses. As they pulled out of Anderson Springs, she shouted to the officer, who was apprising the resident of the evacuation procedures, “Look at the fire. We need to get out of here!” Thankfully, everyone got away in time. This was the first escape.

The Lake Transit buses next went to the Twin Pines Casino as instructed by Middletown Fire to evacuate anyone needing a ride out of Middletown. When the evacuation order was called for the Twin Pine Casino, the Paratransit Services dispatcher at Lake Transit’s Lower Lake facility was in contact with a CHP dispatcher via phone. The CHP dispatcher advised the Paratransit Services dispatcher that buses should proceed north on State Route 29 to return to Lower Lake and the Clearlake area. However, situations can swiftly change during a wildfire. As they evacuated the Twin Pine Casino, picking up several stranded riders along the way, the bus drivers encountered a wall of flames at the Wardlaw Street traffic light. The fire was approaching the Middletown area very rapidly from the North. The drivers were forced to turn around in the middle of the street and find another route back to the Clearlake area. They continued south to Calistoga, then returned to Lake County via US 101 and Highway 20.

Paratransit Services personnel should be commended for their brave response and quick thinking in service to people in need during this wildfire emergency. At Anderson Springs, and, again, at Wardlaw Street, there was the potential that they would be trapped by the fast moving fire. When emergency communications were breaking down, they made the right decisions to get evacuees to safety. Specifically, we acknowledge these personnel who were on the scene: Wanda Gray, Rob Brasier, Don Joachmistaler, Bob Dungan, Claudia May and Dante DeAmincis.

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