Responding to a request from Sonoma County supervisors, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services will conduct a review of the way residents were notified of the deadly, fast-moving October wildfires, a process that was widely faulted and which top county officials refused to explain for weeks.
At stake is the question of why county emergency services officials decided not to use Amber Alert-style messages to get widespread fire warnings out the night of Oct. 8 as wind-driven flames propelled fires that killed 24 people and destroyed more than 5,100 homes, eventually burning 137 square miles of Sonoma County before they were contained.
Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state OES, said his office would undertake an “independent review” of the county’s notification process and county officials said they expect the results by the end of the month.
“We absolutely have to take a look at what we’re doing,” said Shirlee Zane, Board of Supervisors chairwoman. “I find it amazing that we have 24 people who died,” she said, calling it “24 deaths too many.”
Zane, a Santa Rosa resident, said the Tubbs fire came within a mile and a half of her home and she was alerted to it by someone knocking on her door.
“We do need a better system,” she said, suggesting that it should have “redundancies” to account for the fact that some people turn off their cellphones, cellphone towers can fall and landline phones can fail when the power goes off.
“Maybe we need to go back to sirens,” Zane said.
In a Nov. 27 letter to Ghilarducci requesting the review, County Administrator Sheryl Bratton said the county is “committed to obtaining a complete and independent written assessment so that we can learn from this event in order to improve our emergency operational response in the future.”
In the hours between 9:45 p.m. Oct. 8 and daybreak the next morning, thousands of residents endured terrifying and death-defying escapes amid fires that leveled neighborhoods between Calistoga and northern Santa Rosa, and in Kenwood, Glen Ellen and east Sonoma.
County officials issued evacuation notifications throughout the night — initially with firefighters and deputies on the ground banging on doors, blaring sirens, urging people to evacuate over the loudspeakers in the rural communities along Petrified Forest Road.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office sent late-night warnings through the web-based Nixle software capable of reaching the 21,284 cellphones and 16,330 emails of people who had signed up.
But questions quickly arose as to why the county did not use a government alert system designed to send widespread messages via television, radio and cellphones, best known for carrying alerts regarding child abduction cases throughout a broad region.
Top staffers in the county Fire and Emergency Services Department did not respond initially to repeated requests by The Press Democrat to explain that decision.
Finally, on Nov. 18, emergency manager Chris Helgren said the determination had been made last year not to use the emergency alert systems in response to local disasters because they were not geographically targeted and would prompt widespread evacuations.
Federal officials and the state Office of Emergency Services asserted that the Amber Alert-style wireless system had been capable of sending targeted messages since 2013. Lake County sheriff’s officials used the system to warn residents of the October fires that were threatening homes in Clearlake and Clearlake Oaks.