California Fires Bring On Traffic Nightmares

VOICES.NEWS -At 72 years old and ailing, Bunny Jo Harris regularly drives from her home in Riverside to medical appointments in Long Beac...

VOICES.NEWS-At 72 years old and ailing, Bunny Jo Harris regularly drives from her home in Riverside to medical appointments in Long Beach, a trip that usually takes about an hour and a half each way.

But on Wednesday, her commute home was particularly nightmarish, even by Southern California traffic standards. It took more than four hours.

“The GPS kept telling us, ‘Go up into this neighborhood, turn this street, that street, the other street,’” she said. “Oh, I was ready to scream.”

The culprit was the numerous wildfires, spread by powerful wind gusts, that led the authorities to shut down major roadways, including a portion of State Route 60 that delivers Ms. Harris to Riverside. That closure forced her to detour onto local roads, where she said she was greeted with the occasional middle finger from other frustrated motorists.

Traffic long has been a cause of dread for Californians. But when wildfires hit, the gridlock can be unbearable, if not deadly.

Already this fire season, major highways were shut, causing severe disruptions for commuters and businesses along major arteries where, in normal conditions, traffic can slog like a snail. A portion of Interstate 405, among the nation’s busiest freeways, was shut down for several hours this week as a fire tore through the hills near the Getty Center. Route 101, another busy artery, was also closed near Calabasas because of the Mureau fire.

The closures can be particularly stressful on low-wage workers whose commutes may be upended by the knot of detours and traffic.

“At the end of the day, it’s just added stress,” said Micheal Woods, 58, Ms. Harris’s nephew who rode with her from the appointment. “It’s bottlenecks, people trying to get out. It makes it very, very difficult to get around.”

On Friday, as firefighters continued to battle several blazes up and down the state, the latest fire, named the Maria fire, burned in Ventura County and grew to cover nearly 9,000 acres.

Traffic buildups are inevitable when flames sweep dangerously close to highways, or when hillside areas accessible only by narrow, windy roads have to be quickly evacuated. At best, it is an inconvenience. At worst, it can be fatal. Several people died last year after getting stuck on clogged roads trying to escape the Camp fire, a massive blaze in Paradise, Calif., that became the deadliest in state history.

“The last thing we want to do is put anybody at an inconvenience,” said Officer Ian Hoey, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, which oversees highway closures during fires. “But human life is going to come first. If somebody is potentially in danger, that’s going to determine whether there’s going to be a closure of a road.”

Fortunately the fires this year have not had the destructive, deadly force of last year, so there have not been as many logjams on roadways. Still, the impact has been felt.

When the Palisades fire hit last week, Donna Marie Marzullo, 55, said the sole road up to the skin care spa she owned was closed.

“You definitely have to go on living your life, but it is fearful,” she said.

As a construction contractor, Justin Corey said he traveled throughout Southern California to do jobs. He has had to plan his routes carefully around closures and detours. A recent commute took an hour longer than usual because drivers were gawking at smoke-filled hills, he said.

Mr. Corey, 35, had a much scarier encounter with wildfires on Thursday when he had to evacuate his house in San Bernardino in the early hours of the morning as a blaze came racing down Waterman Canyon. A neighbor banged on his door at 2:30 a.m., and when he looked outside, the hills were red and there were palm trees on fire less than 100 yards from his low-slung home. He and his wife quickly got their three children and three dogs into a car and headed downhill to safety.

“I was sad, stressed, thought I was going to lose everything,” Mr. Corey said after he had returned to his home hours later. His house was spared, but he also contemplated another impact of that day’s incident: He had to call off several planned jobs, throwing his busy schedule as a builder into disarray.

If the fires have not disrupted residents’ work routines, they have at least added another level of planning. With the forecast ripe for fires this week, Beth Beal and her husband, Larry, had packed a bag with baby pictures, blankets, birth certificates, their Social Security cards and other important items in the event that they had to evacuate quickly.

That moment came on Thursday morning when the Beals, who live across the street from Mr. Corey, also got a knock on their door as the blaze closed in. Mr. Beal sprayed down the house for a moment with a green garden hose. They grabbed the bag, their three children, their two dogs and two cats, and raced for safety.

“When the wind blows, you don’t sleep,” said Mr. Beal, 35.

Ms. Harris, the woman who lives in Riverside, said her sister had been warning her to get all of her important belongings into a suitcase just in case she had to flee. But she had not been heeding the advice.

In the 18 years she had been living in her two-story brown stucco home, fires had never threatened her subdivision. Ms. Harris figured she was safe because she did not live in the hills or particularly close to any brush that acts as fuel to the unpredictable fires.

Yet hours after she had returned home from the more than four-hour commute from Long Beach, her nephew’s phone buzzed around 3 a.m. It was an alert that a fire was near. When her nephew, who helps to care for her, initially called the Fire Department, he was told they did not have to evacuate. But more than an hour later, when he called back, the authorities told them to flee.

Ms. Harris packed up important keepsakes, photos, her will and other documents before leaving with her nephew. And back she headed onto the roads that had left her frustrated just hours earlier.

“I don’t want to go through this experience again,” Ms. Harris said. “It’s really misery for me.”



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