How would Tahoe students evacuate in fire?
All were wildfires that erupted in the Tahoe Basin or nearby, each ignited at the boundary between forest and urban communities.
North Tahoe High and Middle School, since their construction in 1974 in the Highlands neighborhood east of Tahoe City, have been surrounded by a sea of conifers of every description.
But one essential thing missing at the campus is a secondary escape route that school buses could use to evacuate nearly 700 students in the event of a catastrophic wildfire.
“It’s always been an issue of concern for the fire district,” said Chief Duane Whitelaw of the North Tahoe Fire Protection District. “It is one of our most significant target hazards.”
The site has limited access because just one street, Polaris Road, provides access to the relatively isolated school, Whitelaw said
“Back when the school was built there was supposed to be a road that connected to the Villas by Burton Creek. We’ve identified that as something that needs to be done,” Whitelaw said.
But it probably never will be built, according to Director of Facilities John Britto of the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District. He said the area north of the school, where Polaris turns into a dirt road, is a mix of private property and sensitive wetland areas.
Before the district built its new vehicle storage yard in Truckee in 2003, it stationed six buses at the Tahoe City campus, but they have since been relocated to the Truckee bus yard on Joerger Drive, according to Britto.
Sounding confident the district does not need buses at the school site, Director of Transportation Nanette Rondeau said on any given day the district has buses stationed at the neighboring Tahoe Lake and Kings Beach elementary schools.
However, Rondeau said the district would need about 11 buses to effectively evacuate the two schools on the hill. In a pinch, Rondeau said the district could enlist the assistance of the Tahoe Area Regional Transit agency to provide additional vehicles.
She said the district would adjust its safety plan depending on the emergency. As an example, Rondeau said the recent evacuation due to a chemical spill in the high school’s chemistry lab went very smoothly.
The school district is not waiting idly for a disaster, according to Rondeau.
“This year we have started to train incident managers with a special consultant,” Rondeau said.
The district is training all school employees, she said. In addition, each school has representatives attend the district-wide safety committee that meets once a month to discuss emergency preparedness. Each campus also has a representative from police and fire agencies assigned to it, according to Rondeau.
“My main worry is parents responding to the emergency,” said school resource officer Ross Potts, a deputy with the Placer Sheriff’s office. “They might block ingress and egress and make it difficult for the fire department. I would certainly love to have buses here, but I’m sure the school district has a bigger plan. It would save us about 45 minutes.”
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