A month after the Redwood Valley fire took nine lives and destroyed 313 homes in Mendocino County, Sheriff Tom Allman identified several actions Thursday to improve the county’s capacity to warn residents of future fires.
The suggestions came during a news conference to recount emergency response efforts, in minute-by-minute detail, during the first 12 hours of the blaze, starting from the first call at 11:34 p.m. Oct. 8 in Potter Valley. An hour later, dispatchers received their first emergency call about fires in neighboring Redwood Valley, to the west.
“We’re going to document this as well as possible because if we don’t remember history, certainly we will repeat history,” Allman said to a small crowd in the county supervisors’ chambers in Ukiah. “And we don’t want in 50 years for this fire to occur again.”
He did elaborate on other decisions that could have been made in the early hours of Oct. 9 when flames raced from the edges of Potter Valley to Redwood Valley, testing the capabilities of the Sheriff’s Office, Cal Fire, and other local and state authorities in a rapidly unfolding disaster.
The firestorm’s first 12 hours claimed all of the lives lost in the Redwood Valley fire and most of burned property, Allman said. Fires broke out the same time in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties, so Mendocino County was left with only limited resources to battle the blaze, he said.
By 1:20 a.m., an evacuation order was implemented in Potter Valley. Ten minutes later, residents of Redwood Valley were told to leave their homes, at which time electric and cellphone service had been lost for most people in both areas.
“I know that some people are watching this very video for the purposes of litigation, so you’re not going to hear me be critical of other departments,” Allman said. “As far as the Sheriff’s Office goes, there are lessons learned on this.”
For the county’s top lawman there were three main takeaways that would help the county prepare for destructive wildfires in the future: use of air-raid sirens, herbicides and federally managed emergency cellphone alerts that could assist communications efforts.
Air-raid sirens — phased out over the past three decades — should be re-established so authorities can alert residents of impending disaster during a power and communication blackout, as happened to Willits during the Redwood Valley fire, Allman said.
“I hope Mendocino County could take a step back and we can reposition air-raid sirens,” he said, noting he has already looked into funding them for local fire departments.
Potter Valley Fire and Redwood Valley-Calpella Fire both have air-raid sirens left over from when they were used routinely by fire departments to alert firefighters of emergencies. Potter Valley Fire Chief Bill Pauli said he considered using the sirens but didn’t activate them because “the local people would not have known what it would have meant.” To bring air-raid sirens into the 21st century, will take community outreach and education, Pauli said.
Allman also noted decadesold technology — ham radio — was instrumental in relaying emergency information when land and cellphone lines went down around the fire-affected area.
The sheriff also said defensible space must be improved around cell towers and other communications equipment. Allman said Mendocino County’s ban on the herbicide RoundUp on county property contributed to a buildup of fuel around a county communications tower northwest of Redwood Valley. When the tower was damaged, 911 calls were disrupted and outside communication to the city of Willits was cut off, Allman said.
He will propose a 200-foot gravel buffer around cell towers and antennae in the county, but said he said RoundUp would be a cheaper fix.
Allman will travel to Washington, D.C., Friday to speak with elected officials and regulators about the Wireless Emergency Alert system managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.
The emergency system used for Amber Alerts is currently limited to 90-character messages, although cellphone carriers are required to increase the length to 360 characters by mid-2019. The program has some limits to its geo-targeting capabilities, depending on the software purchased by local agencies to use it.
Allman would like to see the federal alert system refined to allow more sophisticated geographic targeting and to be more accessible to local agencies.
You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.