With natural disasters growing in scale and frequency across California, management of emergencies in Sonoma County should be overseen by the Sheriff’s Office, an around-the-clock department with personnel trained for worst-case-scenarios, according to state Sen. Mike McGuire, who represents three of the four North Coast counties hit hardest by the October wildfires.
Disaster response and planning must no longer be an afterthought for counties faced with increasingly destructive wildfires, and folding emergency planning units into law enforcement agencies would give them built-in access to first responders and dispatch systems, said McGuire, a Healdsburg Democrat and former Sonoma County supervisor.
The North Coast lawmaker addressed questions Friday about the failure of Sonoma County and other jurisdictions to issue effective public warnings when fires ignited in October and the late arrival of the state’s army of mutual aid firefighting resources during a nearly two-hour interview with The Press Democrat’s editorial board.
“There are incredible shortcomings in every corner of the state. There are some better prepared than others, and there are some that aren’t prepared at all,” McGuire said. “It is beyond clear that there are significant shortcomings here in the county of Sonoma.”
McGuire pushed a broad agenda of reshaping California’s response to wildfires and other disasters into a faster, more nimble system with greater numbers of first responders on the ground earlier on during a crisis.
Counties must be equipped to warn the public in various ways and do so sooner in an emergency, he said.
Sonoma County’s emergency services unit failed to send effective public warnings about out-of-control wildfires burning after nightfall Oct. 8 — a subject of public scrutiny over the past five months. A state review released Monday recommended significant changes after finding the county’s alerts and warning system the night of the fires was “uncoordinated.”
McGuire has proposed legislation that would require counties to adopt standardized plans for issuing essential public warnings through a number of systems, from cellphone push notifications to activating state-issued radio alerts.
“We can no longer count on a county-by-county approach to emergency alerts and public notification,” McGuire said.
McGuire said he believes that lives would have been saved in the deadly October fires that killed 40 people in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties had the state’s mutual aid system been designed to deploy more quickly and assist in door-to-door evacuation missions.
Instead, the state’s mutual aid system is hampered by an outdated mission and technologies, which means help arrives too late during the fast-moving crises developing across a region.
Fire officials in Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties requested 300 fire engines to help the firefight during the first hours of the October firestorm, an ask made through the state Office of Emergency Services, according to McGuire.
But only about 130 engines arrived to the four counties within the first 12 hours, he said.
“Mutual aid is the cavalry that arrives after an event has taken place,” McGuire said. “We need to preposition resources during red-flag events in the regions that are most at risk.”
California is too large a state with the potential for great natural and man-made disasters to allow each of its 58 counties to create individual plans, he said.