On the night of the Loma Fire, Chelsea Lancaster’s phone was inundated with frantic phone calls.
As flames engulfed the hillside near Loma Alta Drive on the night of May 20, Ms. Lancaster was fielding calls from fellow residents on the lower Westside who watched from the street as the fire progressed. Many were unsure of what to do to protect themselves and their neighbors.
Ms. Lancaster, the founder of El Centro SB, a community hub on the Eastside, said residents were given no notification from authorities or an emergency alert system that the fire was occurring, in addition to no information about whether or not they should evacuate.
“People were just out on the streets trying to figure out what to do,” Ms. Lancaster told the News-Press.
Without any direction from authorities or alert from an emergency response system, many residents on the lower Westside found out about the fire by looking out the window or getting a knock on the door from a neighbor. Ms. Lancaster said she is concerned for these residents on the lower Westside, particularly because of the high population of underserved people living in the area who could be left behind in a disaster.
“We know how quickly things change, and from past experience, all it takes is one ember, especially in such a densely populated area during a dry season,” Ms. Lancaster said. “Our concern was that it’s a very high density community, with a lot of spanish speaking communities and a lot of underserved people. Would those communities be cared for at the same level as others, as folks on TV Hill or elsewhere?”
She later added, “There’s a lot of Spanish speakers in our community, particularly on the East and West sides, and I know we have language access now in our emergency response system, but nothing went out. So like, what went wrong?”
This lack of emergency communication is leading city officials to host a town hall near the site of the Loma Fire on June 12. Officials plan to discuss how to better serve the lower Westside in future emergencies and provide direction on how to create emergency evacuation plans.
Oscar Gutierez, a city councilmember for the third district, told the News-Press that he has repeatedly heard concerns from residents about the lack of an emergency notification in the days since the Loma Fire. In addition, Mr. Gutierez said many residents now fear the risk of a mudslide in the area and are requesting more information on how to protect themselves from a disaster.
“The risk of a landslide or mudslide now that there is no vegetation holding the soil together has been something that’s been voiced to me by the residents,” Mr. Gutierez told the News-Press. “They want to know what’s going to protect us from a disaster like that again.”
Mr. Gutierez said he has asked the city fire department to develop an evacuation plan for residents on the lower Westside in case of disaster. With only a few ways in and out of the lower Westside, Mr. Gutierez said a sudden evacuation would “cause a serious issue and there would be bottlenecks happening with traffic,” which is the all the more reason why the council member has requested a plan be put in place.
Specific details about the town hall are still forthcoming, and Mr. Gutierrez said an exact location on the lower Westside is still being determined. Leading up to the town hall, Mr. Gutierez said he recommends city residents sign up for newsletters or emergency response notifications and follow the city’s social media accounts to stay up to date on the latest information.
Mayor Cathy Murillo will also be present at the June 12 town hall, alongside city fire officials and Mr. Gutierez.
“I want to thank the community for being willing to ask these hard questions and keep us accountable,” Mr. Gutierez said.