Among the harsh realities that have come into view since the fires of October, one stands clear: Sonoma County failed in its obligation to warn those living in the path of this rapidly advancing inferno.
Yes, this was a once-in-a-half-century catastrophic event that created unprecedented damage, burning 5,100 homes and claiming the lives of 24 people. Yes, this disaster caught everyone by surprise, and no emergency response plan, no matter how detailed, probably would have survived those chaotic early hours of the fires on Oct. 8 and Oct. 9.
Nonetheless, there’s no denying that the county emergency management team fell woefully short in its preparation for and response to this calamity, at best leaving residents in the dark or asleep, costing them time they could have used to grab pets, possessions and important papers before fleeing.
At worst, it may have cost lives.
Much of the focus up to now has been on the county’s decision not to activate the Wireless Emergency Alert system, which would have sent an Amber Alert-style alarm to the vast majority of cellphones in the North Bay warning of the fires spreading with the aid of winds up to 70 mph. The county instead relied on sending automated calls to landline phones and messages through programs such as Nixle and SoCo Alert, which require users to sign up in advance.
As a result, alerts went to a paltry percentage of residents. The county’s emergency manager, Christopher Helgren, who was reassigned on Feb. 15, had said the county avoided activating the WEA system out of concern that it would broadcast too vast a warning, needlessly clogging streets and hampering firefighting efforts. But firefighting efforts already were limited — first responders were primarily focused on rescuing and evacuating people at that point — and streets ended up being clogged anyway.
During a meeting with the Editorial Board on Thursday, Supervisor James Gore said he felt that was “the wrong decision.” We agree.
But the truth is the county’s most significant failure occurred well before the fires broke out on Oct. 8. It was a failure of preparation and proper training.
This was underscored by the preliminary findings of a state Office of Emergency Services analysis of the county’s response to the fires, an analysis that was given to county officials on Tuesday.
According to Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state Office of Emergency Services, Sonoma County was not able to take advantage of the system it had because it lacked the training and the know-how to use it. Although Lake County officials were able to make use of the WEA system in their area based on their experience from the Valley fire in 2015, the capabilities of the system “was not either known or understood by the (Sonoma County) emergency management staff,” Ghilarducci said.
State officials also found that the county’s warning system was hampered by a lack of coordination among various firefighting agencies.
As Gore told the Editorial Board, “we were grossly unprepared for the new normal.”
That’s a fact that supervisors would be better off acknowledging up front when they meet on Tuesday to go over the failings of the county’s infrastructure, including its emergency response efforts and alert systems.
On Sunday, in the second part of this two-part editorial, we will look further at the lessons learned from the fires and what changes and improvements are needed to the county’s emergency response protocols to give Sonoma County residents confidence that while fires will happen again, the mistakes made in warning residents won’t be repeated.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here