Lawsuit: Sonoma County failed to adequately warn residents of Tubbs fire

Santa Rosa resident Charles Stark went to bed the night of Oct. 8, 2017, knowing there was a fire burning about a dozen miles away in Calistoga. He did not know the fierce winds that night would push flames and embers west into his Fountaingrove neighborhood - following the same path blazed 53 years earlier by another a major fire, he would later learn.

Stark thinks Sonoma County and its emergency services division should have known where the Tubbs fire was headed and had all the tools needed to predict its spread, given the windstorm was forecast days in advance and the history of the 1964 Hanly fire. He believes the county had the technological tools to issue widespread warnings to the public about life-threatening danger.

But that night, Stark, like many other Sonoma County residents, learned wildfires were burning down their neighborhoods from an unofficial source - a neighbor pounding on the door, a dog’s relentless barking, a concerned friend’s call.

“I have a strong belief that government should be held accountable and I think they utterly failed us here,” said Stark, whose home was destroyed by the Tubbs fire.

Stark and two other former Fountaingrove residents, Susan and James Decker, have filed a class action lawsuit against the county and its former emergency services manager, Chris Helgren, claiming the agency and its leader neglected two core mandates: plan for disasters and warn the public of imminent danger.

In one of the first lawsuits against the county for its warning failures during the 2017 fires, Stark and the Deckers highlighted Helgren’s controversial decision against using a federal cellphone warning program, Wireless Emergency Alert, that could have forced messages to people’s cellphones. After the fires, Helgren was moved to another post and later retired amid sharp public rebuke of his management of the emergency devision.

“The Department’s main reason to exist was to prepare for and warn residents of an emergency,” according to the amended complaint filed last month in Sonoma County Superior Court. “To this end, Helgren and the Department wholly failed.”

Thousands of Sonoma County residents were forced to flee the fires of October 2017 that burned into Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley, with many enduring harrowing escapes through flames. The county sent warnings about the fires through opt-in programs that sent automated emails, phone calls and text messages but proved largely ineffective that night because a low percentage of residents had signed up.

The county’s emergency warning shortcomings were widely lambasted in the immediate aftermath of the disaster by fire survivors and families of the 24 people killed in the blazes. The failure was underscored in a February 2018 state report criticizing the county’s emergency staff for failing to prepare for wildfires and having an outdated understanding of warning technology that could have been used to alert people to danger.

Just last week, the California state auditor criticized the county for its failure to have an effective plan for alerting the public to immediate danger, according to a formal report evaluating its response to the 2017 fires.

The class action lawsuit filed by Stark and the Deckers is the first to claim the county should be held liable for damage due to official negligence. The plaintiffs will have to prove the county can be sued despite broad legal protections for public entities, including those that provide core services, such as law enforcement, firefighting and emergency response.

Sonoma County Supervisor Board Chair David Rabbitt said the lawsuit hits upon a deeply painful experience for many residents - one the county has responded to by transforming its emergency services division into a more robust agency with an aggressive public warning program.

The county will defend itself against the lawsuit on the grounds it should be immune from liability because of state law protections offered to public entities, he said.

“The county has total empathy for the families who lost loved ones, that’s first and foremost,” Rabbitt said. “There are legal opinions about what the county did, should have done, shouldn’t do, could have done, and the consequences from that - that will have to play out in court.”

He highlighted the effective use of public warnings this year - including the federal cellphone notification system - when the Kincade fire broke out Oct. 23.

Bill Adams, an attorney representing Helgren, said laws giving government agencies immunity against lawsuits also protect public employees acting in the scope of their positions. He said they had only recently received notice of the lawsuit and declined to discuss the case further. Helgren will file a formal response to the allegations in January, he said.

Grady Tapley, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said they will argue the county is liable for negligence because its duty to prepare for an emergency and warn the public about imminent danger is mandatory and not discretionary.

Stark said he was in shock for the better part of a year after the fire. He lost his home, including all the mementos from his 50-year marriage to Winifred “WinAnn” Stark, who died of cancer in 2016.

Stark said he wanted to initiate a class action lawsuit as a way of helping his neighbors and countless others who endured all manner of terrifying escapes, such as a man who told him about driving away from his burning neighborhood, crashing into another vehicle abandoned on the road, and then running on foot.

“The government cannot be immune from such a reckless disregard of the public interest,” Stark said.

Stark said he likely would have died had his dog not woken him up. He is hard of hearing and took a sleeping pill after determining the smoke he smelled in the air was from a fire in northern Napa County - not expecting it to reach his home.

When houses began burning near Stark’s Fir Ridge Drive house about 2 a.m., his 20-pound dog Skipper began jumping on his chest, pounding with straight legs like he was giving CPR, Stark recalled. Eventually the dog pulled the hard-of-hearing man out of a groggy sleep to meet the terrifying realization his neighborhood was on fire.

The power was out, delaying Stark’s escape while he struggled to get his garage door open.

“I got out. I didn’t get burned, but it was a traumatic escape,” Stark said.

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