People were put in imminent peril in Sonoma County during the early hours of last year’s firestorm because county officials did not issue more coordinated, widespread warnings, having discounted wireless alerts to cellphones that could have reached many more of those in the path of the inferno, Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore said Thursday.
Gore is the highest-ranking county official to state publicly that the decision by emergency management staff to rule out Amber Alert-style warnings — a step taken about a year before the fires but apparently not communicated to county leadership — led to poor communication with the community, including haphazard messaging from multiple agencies on different platforms the night of Oct. 8 and early Oct. 9.
Gore was asked in a two-hour interview with The Press Democrat’s editorial board if that shortfall on warnings endangered lives during the firestorm.
“Absolutely,” he said.
The county was better prepared to handle emergencies with which it was familiar, such as major floods in the lower Russian River, Gore said, but was overwhelmed by the sudden eruption of six major fires in the region and a half-dozen smaller ones.
“We were grossly underprepared for the new normal,” Gore said. “We should have woken up the world.”
Gore, who took over as board chairman in January, and County Administrator Sheryl Bratton said in Thursday’s interview they were never told before the wildfires about a decision by the county’s former emergency services manager, Christopher Helgren, not to use wireless alert technology during local disasters.
Helgren has said he wasn’t confident the alerts could be targeted to an area smaller than the entire county, although state officials said this week that county emergency staff didn’t keep up with technological improvements to the wireless system.
Bratton has not asked Helgren who he informed of his decision, she said. She reassigned him last week to a different job updating a county plan to keep the government’s day-to-day operations running during future disasters. She has not ruled out dismissing him, saying such a step would require a complete assessment of pre- and post-fire actions, expected in a pair of pending county and state reports.
Bratton, as the county’s top executive, was in charge of emergency operations that night, and she sketched out a clearer picture of her actions, the role of people around her at county headquarters and in the field, and the inadequate flow of information that night.
She arrived at the emergency operations center about midnight, told of the fires by Jim Colangelo, Helgren’s direct boss as interim head of the county’s Fire and Emergency Services department. But even from that nerve center, it was difficult to know the full extent of the fires or how to keep the community safe, she said.
“I had no visibility of the issue — you’re in a bunker,” she said. “I’d see people run into the EOC who drove through fire, who left a burning house, and you could see the terror on their faces. … We were just getting bits and drabs of information.”
She shared her surprise to hear the Kohl’s department store west of Highway 101 in north Santa Rosa was threatened, meaning the flames had jumped six lanes of paved freeway and frontage roads.