Out of the frying pan …

Evacuation of Oroville put motorists directly in the flood path on Highway 70

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, beside Cal Fire incident commander Kevin Lawson, during a press conference in Oroville on Tuesday (Feb. 14).

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, beside Cal Fire incident commander Kevin Lawson, during a press conference in Oroville on Tuesday (Feb. 14).

Photo by Howard Hardee

On Sunday (Feb. 12), with the hillside below Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway eroding at a pace of 30 feet per hour, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea pointedly asked officials with the California Department of Water Resources how far the growing chasm was from reaching the spillway’s crest and causing a catastrophic failure. About 30 feet, he was told. So, there was an hour to evacuate Oroville.

“At that point, I had to make the decision to save as many people as possible,” he said. “I knew there would be chaos, difficulty, traffic problems, but we were balancing the prospect of thousands and thousands of people potentially losing their lives.”

Honea may never fully wrap his head around the gravity of the situation and the risks of the evacuation itself, he told the CN&R. For instance, thousands of evacuees followed his order to head to Chico and the crush of traffic gridlocked Highway 70 north of Oroville, including the section crossing the Feather River. Had the emergency spillway collapsed and released a “30-foot wall of water,” a possibility described by Cal Fire incident commander Kevin Lawson, motorists would have been swept away with rocks, trees and other debris.

District 1 Supervisor Bill Connelly said as much during the TV broadcast of KRCR News Channel 7’s live coverage of the crisis.

“I’m really worried about my constituents and I’m trying to direct people in a rational manner,” he told KRCR anchor Jerry Olenyn over the phone. “Everybody is heading northwest to Chico, but if this thing does break, you need to head east. You need to get up into the hills. If you’re on the south side of the bridge, you’re on the wrong side of the river. You need to head east!”

Connelly called Honea and urged him to let people flee into the county’s foothills. Honea listened. He told California Highway Patrol to allow residents to head east, and many, including members of Connelly’s family, found safe haven in the Thermalito area.

After hours of gridlock, CHP closed Highways 70 and 99 to southbound traffic at Durham-Pentz Road and made them one-ways heading north, easing the passage to the evacuation center at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico and points beyond. Meanwhile, engineers scrambled to release more water from Lake Oroville and relieve the pressure on the emergency spillway.

A deluge never barreled down the Feather River at 100 mph, and about 35,000 residents of Butte County were safely evacuated, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

All in all, the evacuation was flawed but successful, Connelly said. “I think we have to look at it in context,” he told the CN&R. “What a burden on the sheriff. I mean, what else are you going to do? You have an hour, hour-and-a-half to evacuate or thousands of people in your county are going to be flooded. It wasn’t perfect, but [Honea] did a good job. I just hope we learn from it.”

The sheriff’s evacuation order was reduced to a warning on Tuesday (Feb.14). CHP removed the roadblocks ahead of the announcement, intending to allow for a gradual repopulation of Oroville, Honea said. There was, however, another major traffic jam as people left the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds and returned home, according to a Chico Police Department press release.

Honea stressed that the threat is still present. With rain in the forecast, the emergency spillway could be tested again, and he may be forced to order another evacuation.

“The risk has been reduced, but there’s still a very significant issue that can result in the risk increasing again,” he said. “People need to get back in their homes and get on with their lives, but also need to prepare for the possibility of a future evacuation.”

The authorities are preparing for that as well, Honea said. Working with the DWR and Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Emergency Services, his office is using computer modeling to pinpoint alternative evacuation routes and better understand potential impacts on traffic congestion. During the crisis on Sunday, he said, there was time only to get people out of the most immediate danger.

“I had to sound the alert and get people moving,” he said. “To do that in a more orderly fashion would have spent extraordinarily valuable time.”