North Bay fires inspire garage door battery bill

Automatic garage doors sold in California may soon need battery back-up, so people aren't trapped during power outages.  

It's a bill inspired by the North Bay fires last fall, in which some victims died in their cars or garages, unable to drive away.

An evacuee from the senior community of Oakmont championed the change. 

"When I tried to lift this door and couldn't get it open, I immediately felt very old and very vulnerable," said Cheryl Diehm, "and really aware that I was not able to do the one thing I needed to do to get myself out of here safely."  

October 9th, as the Nuns Fire approached her neighborhood, Diehm could not raise her garage door above her knees no matter how hard she tried. 

At the time, she had no idea the rubber bumper on it was malfunctioning. 

"Where am I going to go on a cane ?" Diehm noted, waving the cane she uses to get around.  It was 1:30 am, power was out, and parts of Santa Rosa already engulfed.

The order had come to leave, but Diehm, her two cats, and her 90 year old neighbor were stuck.      
Diehm was in the middle of her deserted street, the wind howling, and sky glowing orange, when a couple spotted her and stopped.   

"They came in and with difficulty, with difficulty, he got it up and we drove away," said Diehm, remembering her relief. 

During her nine days evacuated, and for weeks afterward, Diehm heard that among the 44 people killed in the fires, at least 5 were trapped in their cars or garages by doors they could not open. She also met many evacuees who had struggled as she had. 

"It''s countless, you could talk to ten people and six or seven of them had a similar experience," Diehm recounted. 

She turned to a state senator who had his own garage door scare the night of the fires.  

"My wife couldn't get our garage door up," Senator Bill Dodd told KTVU, "because it's a heavy door and it was jammed, and they just couldn't get it opened."  

Dodd's house survived the Atlas fire in Napa County, although more than 100 of his Silverado neighbors lost their homes. 

One of them took desperate measures to get away. 

"There was a neighbor right up the street from us who absolutely drove through his garage door in order to escape," said Sen. Dodd. 

Because of what he was hearing, Dodd authored legislation, that won bi-partisan passage and will soon await the Governor's signature. 

It will require all new or replacement garage doors in California to have battery back-up.  On some models, the battery feature can be added. Diehm's opener couldn't be modified so she bought a new one.  

"We also put another handle up higher, so there's more leverage," said Diehm, showing how her door is now easier to lift manually.

Fire didn't devastate Oakmont as it did other neighborhoods to the north, but Diehm doesn't want anyone to die behind a garage door. 

She notes in an emergency, someone of any age or strength might have difficulty. 

"I think we have to account for panic and shock," said Diehm, "and we need to know how to pull the rope and lift the door, and have a good evacuation plan, but this law is a good first step." 

Both Diehm and Dodd hope the legislation raises awareness and prompts people to convert their doors by choice, although not required.

Senator Dodd notes, there were also deaths in the Carr Fire in Redding, attributable to victims not being able to open their garages and drive away.