Hard lessons from October wildfires a ‘wake-up call’ for Sonoma County

The destructive power of the October 2017 firestorm exposed deep shortcomings and outright failures in emergency preparedness. A year later, local officials say they learned painful lessons.|

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It was 11:19 p.m. on Oct. 8, and a panicked caller to Sonoma County's 911 dispatch center was incredulous the operator wasn't aware her world had exploded in flames.

“What's on fire?” the 911 dispatcher asked.

Everything, the caller said. The trees, the houses, anything standing on Mountain Home Ranch Road in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains. Propane tanks were exploding. The neighborhood needed a fire engine “an hour ago,” she said.

“How big is the fire? Huge,” she said. “Acres. Hundreds of acres. Nobody's been warned about this.” People would die, she feared.

Less than two hours earlier, a wildfire had erupted off Tubbs Lane outside Calistoga. Hot, dry Diablo winds drove the fire west, up and over the mountains that border Sonoma County and down into a landscape of ranches and rural subdivisions on the eastern outskirts of Santa Rosa.

The Tubbs fire, California's worst wildfire on record, would arrive in the city around 1 a.m., but already it had people running for their lives. Across the region, a half-dozen other major blazes were burning, trapping residents on Nuns Canyon Road above Sonoma Valley, near Atlas Peak in Napa County and in Redwood Valley in Mendocino County.

At 11:40 p.m., two hours after the Tubbs fire ignited, Sonoma County's inundated 911 dispatch center received the first call from the county's emergency services division.

The caller, Sam Wallis, an on-duty emergency coordinator, greeted the operator with “Good morning,” and asked what he should do. The dispatcher seemed taken aback by his question. He could come into the call center, she said.

“We have lots going on,” she added.

On another line, a separate operator was urgently asking Mendocino County officials to send help. But authorities there were already taxed with a big wildfire of their own she was told, according to a Press Democrat review of calls to Sonoma County's 911 calls that night.

Wallis, the on-duty emergency staffer, wasn't clear what to do next.

“I'm not sure how much help I'll be,” he said to the dispatcher on his call. “I'm with the emergency management section for fire and emergency services. So I'm not a fireman or something.”

The chaos, speed and destructive power of the October 2017 firestorm exposed deep shortcomings and outright failures in emergency preparedness. A year later, local officials and public safety leaders say they learned painful lessons from the disaster. They have made critical changes to the ways people are warned of emergencies and directed to safety, fires are detected and attacked, and power grids are operated during dangerous conditions.

Failure on warnings

Tens of thousands of people were sleeping that night last year when fierce winds whipped flames into firestorms across Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, overwhelming every aspect of emergency response from public warnings and firefighting resources to water, electricity, cellphone and 911 systems.

It was not even a firefight in those pre-dawn hours. People fled on foot, they hid in pools or drove white-knuckled into unsettling traffic jams caused by so many trying to escape at once. Firefighters and other first responders did little else in those first critical hours than get people out of danger. Not everyone was saved.

Forty people died in the North Bay fires. Some suffocated from heat and smoke in their homes, others died inside their garages, trapped by motorized doors they could not open without power. One woman fleeing in her car missed a sharp turn in the road not far from home. Her husband drove by minutes later and would go days wondering about her fate. Her body was found by a deputy down the embankment near the burned car.

The youngest victims, a teenage brother and sister from Mendocino County, died days apart from burns they suffered while trying to escape with their parents, who survived.

Most of those in the fires' path in Sonoma County received no official warning to evacuate.

“We should have woken up the world,” Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore would later say in the fires' wake.

California's most destructive siege of wildfire dragged on for 23 days before the flames were contained in Sonoma County, where the toll was heaviest, with more than 5,300 homes lost and 24 people killed. Across Northern California, insured losses from the October fires could climb to $15 billion. Images of staggering loss - entire neighborhoods reduced to ash and debris - captured national and international media attention for weeks.

In the earliest days, evacuees began asking why Sonoma County had failed to warn people about the fast-moving fires burning into populated areas.

The communication breakdown triggered a backlash that persists to this day, underpinning perhaps the county's most significant single change in the fires' aftermath: When the next disaster hits, authorities have vowed to immediately and widely broadcast emergency messages in as many ways possible, including Amber Alert-style messages pushed onto cellphones, a tool the county's top emergency manager sidelined before the October fires.

Other counties made effective use of those messages last year, including Lake County in October and Southern California counties in December during an outbreak of flames that included the giant Thomas fire.

Sonoma County officials, including County Administrator Sheryl Bratton, have acknowledged they weren't prepared. State emergency officials and an internal county review reached similar conclusions, the latter report describing a workforce that was ill-equipped and undertrained for the type of catastrophe that erupted last year.

“We need to do more on every level,” Bratton said in an interview months after the fires.

Gore, the Board of Supervisors chairman, said the county had missed the “wake-up call” that came with ferocious fires in Lake County in recent years.

“I want to shake everybody in my position around the state and say, ‘Wake up, and learn the lesson,'?” Gore said in a recent interview. Thousands of acres of drought-stricken, forestlands remain a tinderbox, he said.

“The complacency that existed in our community prior to this cannot (continue),” he said.

No plan for ‘mega fires'

County and state officials say they have learned other crucial and potentially lifesaving lessons from the October 2017 fires. They will evacuate populated areas earlier. Dispatchers now know how to coach people trapped by wildfire. PG&E will shut off power lines during dangerous weather events. Crews are installing fire-detection cameras on local hilltops and stations are putting extra firefighters on duty when wildfire risk is high. State lawmakers added $25 million to the current budget to bolster the mutual aid firefighting network, which did not deliver the resources needed to quickly help in the October fires.

“The size and scope of wildland fires in California are getting worse,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. He helped write a new law that will require statewide standards for public emergency warnings and has called for an overhauled approach to the way California fights fire, starting with improved forest management. A measure authored by Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, and signed into law this month by Gov. Jerry Brown will provide up to $1 billion in forest management funding over five years to reduce fire risk.

“We are in the age of mega fires, and we have to invest in the resources to keep communities safe,” McGuire said. “That means accurate, timely information when disaster strikes.”

Last October, weather forecasters had predicted extreme fire danger three days before the fires erupted. But Sonoma County's plans in place at the time to warn people in emergencies were based on an outdated understanding of technology, the state determined, and didn't take into account how relatively few people still have landline telephones or had signed up for voluntary notification systems such as Nixle or SoCoAlert.

Of all the fire officials, dispatchers and law enforcement commanders working that night, none had been given the tools by emergency services staff to issue widespread warnings to the public in times of emergencies. That authority was held by a pair of top emergency officials who were out of town when the fires broke out. Even if they had been in town, one of those officials, Christopher Helgren, the county's emergency manager, had ruled out such forced cellphone alerts, The Press Democrat first reported last year.

Helgren was reassigned after the fires and subsequently retired. Helgren said his decision to rule out wider alerts was driven by a concern they would cause mass panic and traffic jams that would hamper the emergency response.

Separately, emergency dispatchers for the Sheriff's Office and REDCOM, the county's fire and medical 911 call center, were overwhelmed that night. They had no system to convert an avalanche of real-time reports of fires and aid requests from residents and first responders into an early and clear sense of what was unfolding.

Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano remembers hearing a deputy's voice coming over the radio plainly announcing his dire situation to the dispatcher: Deputy Mark Aldridge and more than 30 others were surrounded by fire near Mark West Springs Lodge, and they were trying to wait out the blaze in a parking lot.

Alarmed by what he heard, Giordano stepped outside into the back parking lot of the Sheriff's Office in Santa Rosa and he encountered a deputy covered in ash with bloodshot eyes and in a state of shock after returning from the fire line.

“He said, ‘I'm sorry, they're all dead. Thousands of people are dead,'” Giordano recalled.

Heroes filled the void

Over the next several weeks, the death toll reached 44 people across Northern California, including the 24 people killed in Sonoma County, nine in Mendocino County, seven in Napa and four in Yuba County.

That tally doesn't include an uncounted number of people who lost their lives in the immediate aftermath, including an elderly Santa Rosa woman who collapsed after going door to door alerting people in her building and a 27-year-old Santa Rosa man who died after an asthma attack at a time when the air quality was the worst ever recorded in the Bay Area.

That first night in the parking lot of the Mark West Springs Lodge, Aldridge, the sheriff's deputy, kept people calm as fire burned around them for hours until they were able to escape.

To this day, Alice Eurotas doesn't know how a stranger - Mark Allen of Sebastopol - came to her rescue at 2:30 a.m. Oct. 9 before her home at Oakmont of Villa Capri, a Santa Rosa assisted care facility, burned to the ground. Allen had rushed to the Fountaingrove facility to retrieve his mother, but when he arrived, he found dozens of other elders without means to escape, according to court documents from a lawsuit against the facility's management company.

By that time, the Tubbs fire had been burning more than four hours. A northern branch of the fire had shot across six lanes of Highway 101 in northern Santa Rosa and was throwing embers onto roofs in the Coffey Park neighborhood as traffic from fleeing people clogged the streets.

Allen barged in to Eurotas' room yelling “Fire!” and then helped her slip into sandals, grab her walker and make the slow march down the stairs, illuminating the darkness with the light of his cellphone. In the first floor lobby, Eurotas got her first look at the calamity unfolding outside.

“Every shrub and every tree - everything outdoors was in flames,” Eurotas said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Where the hell are the firemen?'?”

The local firefighting force was out in record numbers that night, with many grabbing turnouts and jumping into trucks before being called to duty. They joined neighbors, law enforcement officers and others pounding on doors, breaking through gates, heaving open electric garage doors and straining their voices to jar people out of bed, into their cars and out of danger.

On the hilltop streets of Fountaingrove, where more than 1,400 homes were lost, firefighters encountered weak water pressure at crucial moments in the firefight. Crews spent precious time driving down the hill to refill water tenders and engines in other neighborhoods.

The neighborhood's massive green water tanks were at their lowest levels of the day, two of the area's 10 tanks were out of commission, water pumps failed and backup generators were not working.

A city-funded examination of the water pressure problems that night concluded unrestricted gushing of water from sprinkler systems, garden hoses and other water spouts as the fire burned quickly drained the system, crippling the firefight.

Seeking help, safety

At the county's 911 call centers, where dispatchers were coughing on smoke as they fielded a record number of calls, operators found themselves without a script for how to help people trapped by fire make life-and-death decisions.

Dispatchers repeatedly told callers a deputy would come to their door if they needed to evacuate. For many that night, it was a false promise.

Local firefighters requested more than 300 engines to assist in the firefight, but only 130 were sent in the first 12 hours, according to data from the state Office of Emergency Services.

At 12:06 a.m. Oct. 9, Jack Piccinini, fire chief for the Windsor and Rincon Valley districts where 1,700 homes were lost - put on a 911 dispatcher's headset to ask Cal Fire when additional firefighting resources would arrive. The operator said plenty were on the way, and Piccinini double checked to make sure they were heading to Sonoma County.

They were, in fact, headed to Napa.

Reflecting back on that night, Piccinini, a veteran fire official, said that's when he threw out the playbook and fire commanders started calling nearby jurisdictions directly instead of going through the regular channels, asking them to send strike teams and any help available.

If the same kind of firestorm hit the region again, Piccinini believes firefighters, law enforcement and emergency professionals as well as residents would be better prepared, though he cautioned that the sheer power and number of fires that broke out one year ago would still initially, at least, overwhelm the fastest deployment of firefighters.

“If this happened tomorrow, we would not have the lives lost like we did,” Piccinini said. “But would we have the same property loss? We might.”

Authorities say they are better equipped to direct people out of harm's way in the next life-threatening disaster. Santa Rosa police and fire officials as well as dispatchers and sheriff's deputies can now send alerts through opt-in systems like Nixle or SoCoAlert and push messages out onto cellphones, television, radio and electronic billboards along the highways.

Next month, dispatchers from about 500 agencies across the globe will receive a new script developed by REDCOM and honed by experts to help people trapped by wildfires.

In response to the October fires, state lawmakers pushed through scores of bills to strengthen the capacity of people and government to prepare for and survive an era of increasingly volatile fires.

Backup batteries will be required for all new electric garage doors so people can escape when the power is out. Cal Fire has been authorized to collaborate with private landowners on controlled burns to reduce wildfire fuels. And utilities are now mandated each year to prepare a wildfire mitigation plan, including all known fire risks in their service areas and how they will address those risks.

State investigators have so far determined 16 significant fires across Northern California last October were ignited by PG&E power lines and equipment. In 11 of those instances, the state found the utility company to be in violation of state regulations, mostly for failing to keep vegetation away from its equipment. The cases have been forwarded to district attorneys to review for criminal negligence.

Investigators have not yet said what caused the Tubbs fire.

Faced with hundreds of lawsuits from burned-out fire survivors as well as local governments, PG&E has taken its own steps to stem wildfire risks linked to its operations. The company put in motion a plan to shut down power lines and remotely deactivate devices that send repeat charges of electricity when power is cut - safety measures a San Diego utility has used for years. It's spending as much as $700,000 on high-definition cameras to monitor potential wildfires across the North Bay and an undisclosed amount on a new 24/7 command center at its San Francisco headquarters to monitor its entire service area for wildfires and other major events.

Training for next disaster

The state, in turn, is spending millions of dollars to improve all manner of emergency response from firefighting to the 911 system, including a one-time infusion of $25 million to help local agencies deploy extra firefighting crews during times of extreme fire risk - like the weather that swept through Northern California last October.

Sonoma County is allocating $8 million to improve emergency preparedness, installing fire detection cameras at high elevations across the county, boosting brush clearance programs and requiring all staff members spend at least 20 hours each year on disaster training.

“We need to accept these kinds of fires may be part of the regular future,” said Christopher Godley, the county's interim emergency manager.

If a major disaster struck in Sonoma County today, a network of emergency workers with the county, Santa Rosa and other jurisdictions are now connected to each other in ways that didn't exist in 2017. A year ago, a “bunker mentality” - a term used by Supervisor David Rabbitt - hampered communication, delayed evacuation notices and created inefficient coordination among agencies trying to respond to an unprecedented disaster.

Godley said emergency staff are drawing up plans for response to bigger worst-case-scenarios than previously anticipated - the Russian River flooding at higher levels and in new locations, for example - and they are not waiting for scientific modeling to prepare for those possibilities.

“These fires as well as recent events like hurricanes have indicated climate change impacts are here,” said Godley. “We didn't expect to see these effects until 2030.”

Giordano, who became an outspoken and reassuring authority figure during weeks of chaos and fear as the fires continued to burn, said that one of the greatest lessons for government was the need to tell the public what you know when you know it, even if the picture isn't yet complete.

“Give them more information,” Giordano said. “Just explain to them where it's coming from and why so they have the same context and the same view that you have. Because that's all they're asking - to understand.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

Special Coverage

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