A throng of federal, state and local officials, headed by Gov. Jerry Brown and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, toured fire-ravaged Santa Rosa Saturday to see for themselves the scale of the disaster and pledge their support for the ongoing firefight and eventual recovery.
“This is truly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, tragedy that California has ever faced,” Brown said. “The devastation is just unbelievable. It’s a horror that no one could have imagined.”
Hundreds of people, many of them newly homeless, packed the Santa Rosa High School gymnasium where leaders expressed support for community recovery, pleaded with people to heed new evacuation notices and advised residents about how to sign up for a variety of types of assistance.
“Right now we are just here to say we are with you, we support you, and it’s going to be a long road ahead,” Harris said. “But there’s been so much courage coming out of this community.”
The deadliest of the local blazes, the Tubbs fire, which started in Calistoga Sunday night and roared into Santa Rosa, has claimed at least 22 lives and burned more than 35,000 acres.
In Santa Rosa alone, it has destroyed more than 2,800 homes and 400,000 square feet of commercial space.
While officials described significant progress in fighting the fires — the Tubbs fire was at 50 percent containment Saturday night — they also stressed that danger remained, with new evacuation orders imposed on hundreds of homes in eastern Santa Rosa early Saturday.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Brown said, urging people to stay alert and be ready to evacuate.
State and federal elected officials joined local county supervisors, Santa Rosa City Council members and others for a closed-door briefing at the high school. Brown’s staff referred to the briefing as “private,” and members of the media were denied access. The group emerged about half an hour later and gave a brief press conference.
While the officials vowed to find additional funding, there were few specifics. Feinstein said she and Harris would “put our heads together” to find ways to make sure the federal disaster relief funds were “beefed up” in response to what is now the most devastating wildfire in state history, in terms of both the number of dead and structures lost.
Feinstein said she received assurances from Federal Emergency Management Agency officials that disaster relief would be available not only to reimburse government agencies for their costs, but individuals, too.
The terms and extent of that assistance were not immediately clear. One man who lost his home said he tried to sign up for FEMA disaster assistance and was told his income was too high to qualify.
The politicians earned cheers from hundreds of residents in attendance when they praised the work of firefighters and police and pledged to support the city’s recovery.
But there were some pointed questions from residents who criticized Sonoma County’s emergency alert system.
Buffi Frazier, a resident of Mark West Springs Road, said she and her family almost didn’t make it out of their neighborhood because the emergency alert she received on her landline around 11:30 p.m. was “vague” and “very ambiguous.”
“It is said ‘Prepare to evacuate. It is highly recommended that you evacuate,’ ” Frazier said. “We took that to mean that we should think about evacuating. Not that we should get out now. It was very confusing.”
She said that within 45 minutes “our community was on fire, so I’d like to know what that call was supposed to tell us.”
Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said he couldn’t remember the exact wording of the message, but he said the intent was clear.
“We wanted people to evacuate because (the fire) was coming,” Gossner said.
He explained that as the number of people with landlines has declined from over 300,000 to around 175,000, the county has implemented a cellphone-based alert system SoCo Alerts, for which people need to sign up.
The county Office of Emergency Services calls landlines through a reverse 911 system and issues the SoCo Alerts to cellphones, and sends out Nixle alerts through emails, Sheriff Rob Giordano said.
Some areas did receive messages to “prepare” to evacuate, Giordano said, “because we weren’t expecting fire there right away, but we needed to get people ready.”
But the fire moved so “unbelievably fast,” he said, that it may have destroyed the infrastructure needed to send out additional messages
“What happened was everything burned down. We lost cell towers, we lost landlines, so a lot of people didn’t get calls because they didn’t have any way to get calls anymore,” Giordano said.
While he stressed that multiple messages went out to numerous people that evening, Giordano acknowledged the “system itself is only so good.”