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