Five years after the Witch Creek wildfire that led to a nightmarishly slow evacuation of Ramona, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to pursue a new route, as conceived by the Ramona Community Planning Group, that will help decongest traffic on State Route 67 during emergency evacuations.
"This community faced a major headache during the evacuation process during the Witch Creek fire of 2007," stated Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents Ramona. "In short, the entire town was ordered to leave all at once, creating a massive gridlock on Highway 67 and a potentially tragic incident in and of itself."
Ramona Community Planning Group Chair Jim Piva spoke publicly on behalf of the group at Tuesday's water board meeting, letting the board know that the county had approved the evacuation route.
"It's a very positive event and I definitely think the community will benefit from [the route]," Piva said at the meeting.
The new evacuation route would carry traffic from SR 67 along an unpaved road for about a half-mile across property just north of the Ramona Airport that is owned by the Ramona Municipal Water District (RMWD). The route dumps out onto Highland Valley Road, which runs west into Rancho Bernardo.
David Barnum, general manager of the RMWD, said he hoped to bring the emergency route to the water board agenda sometime soon. Piva urged for it to be discussed at the Oct. 23 meeting.
The vote by the supervisors at Tuesday's county meeting, which was unanimous as part of the consent calendar, directs county staff to negotiate the opening of the dirt road to the public during emergencies.
"This action will save lives and provides the people of Ramona another option in the event there is a need for people to evacuate, in the event of another emergency," Jacob said.
The passed item brings the route one step closer to completion. The RMWD must also approve of the route since it lies on RMWD property.
Water board member Joe Zenovic mentioned at Tuesday's meeing that it might be helpful for the press and public to view the route to get a better understanding of it.
"We should see where it is, what it is and be more informed about it," Zenovic said.
Water board president Bryan Padlington agreed, saying that a public tour of the proposed route will be a "valuable visual aid."
Piva is currently organizing a day for residents and press to take a tour of the route.
The new route will help with the decongesting of SR 67 in cases of emergencies, allowing those that live in north Ramona to bypass the state route, leaving it open for residents in south and east Ramona.
SR 67, which goes south to Poway and Lakeside, is the primary highway out of town. SR 78 also allows a way out of town and into Escondido, but consists of just one lane in each direction. In 2007, SR 78 was not available as an evacuation route because of the fire.
The only other way out is winding, narrow and accident-prone Wildcat Canyon Road, which runs south. Most of those killed in the firestorm of the 2003 Cedar Fire perished in the canyon area south of the Barona Indian Reservation.
Stay tuned with Patch for updates on the public tour of the route.
–City News Service contributed to this report.