Carmel Valley has known wildfire risks: steep terrain, seasonally dry brush and lots of open space. It also has limited evacuation routes.
Stacey Wood and her husband moved to Carmel Valley about four years ago. They live in a neighborhood called Robles Del Rio. It was built in the late 1920s as a cluster of summer homes. Today, people live here year-round; Robles Del Rio has over 600 residents.
Wood calls her neighborhood a tinderbox. While driving down her street, she points out the fallen leaves and branches that crunch beneath her wheels and the oak trees that create a canopy over her car.
“I see every, you know, all of this on fire in my head and imagine okay so how do you, how do you get out when it's all burning around you. Seen video of that, of other people driving through literally what looks like driving through hell,” Wood says.
What concerns Wood most is there’s only one way out of her neighborhood. It’s a bridge over the Carmel River called Rosie’s Bridge.
“Inside me I feel like this sort of fighting spirit of well there's got to be a way. And if we're not looking for solutions, why aren't we?” says Wood.
Cal Fire Unit Forester Jonathan Pangburn says there are no easy solutions for neighborhoods like Robles del Rio.
“So unfortunately, there are a number of older communities or neighborhoods that exist with only one road in and one road out, which is an inherently dangerous situation to be in,” Pangburn says.
But he says one option is to build another road out. This would require permits and for landowners to work together.
“This all costs money and it is not a cheap prospect, but nonetheless, there's a reason that it's required in our current building codes,” says Pangburn.
Current Monterey County building codes require new subdivisions to have more than one way out. There’s no requirement for older neighborhoods to change, but the county is willing to help people interested in building a road. Still, Pangburn says it’s a big undertaking. So it’s important to also have a plan based on the way things are now.
At the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office, Undersheriff John Mineau pulls up a Google Map of Carmel Valley. He says you start by really knowing your neighborhood.
“And I would tell people look at it, look at a satellite map of your area because there might be a route that you just didn't realize was there,” says Mineau.
Then, he recommends doing a test drive because you might find out your car can’t handle the terrain.
Mineau also says if you know a fire is headed toward your home, get out early.
“I can't stress enough, you don't have to wait for us, you don't have to wait for fire[fighters]. You don't have to wait for somebody to say, ‘leave.’ If you know you're in an area that's tough to get in and out of, go as soon as you can,” Mineau says.
Carmel Valley resident Stacey Wood is prepared to leave quickly. But the one road out of her neighborhood leads to the next obstacle: Carmel Valley Road. It’s a 40-mile, often two-lane road with just three ways out of the Valley.
“You can go left or right. But if you go right, you've got unbelievably curvy road that you can't drive more than 10 or 15 miles an hour on without there being a safety issue in order to get out of the Valley. Otherwise, you’ve got to take a left. And the first road out is Laureles Grade,” Wood says.
Keep heading west and she’ll get to Highway 1 along the coast. That’s it; those are the only ways out. The Monterey County Office of Emergency Services is working on a regional evacuation plan. They’re figuring out how residents can safely get out of places like Carmel Valley all at the same time.
If fire blocks your only exit, first responders say you may need ‘shelter in place.’ You could stay in your home or go somewhere the neighborhood designates as a temporary refuge area. Wherever it is, the location needs defensible space.
A Robles Del Rio community meeting about wildfire preparedness will take place on April 3 from 6 to 8pm at Tularcitos Elementary School. Several agencies including CalAm and PG&E will attend.
Join KAZU next week as we report on how wildfire risk in Carmel Valley has affected homeowners insurance.