Painful lessons from 2017 wildfires shape preparations for next disaster
If fire comes to Mill Creek canyon in the hills west of Healdsburg, Mark Menne and his wife have 5-minute and 30-minute evacuation plans, depending on whether they have time to hose off the roof or just get their two old basset hounds in the car and get out.
Smoke from nearly a dozen fires that broke out the night of Oct. 8, 2017, was so thick in this canyon of second- and third-growth redwood forest, Menne’s wife called 911 only to learn the blazes were miles away.
Weeks later, the skies had barely cleared when they and other neighbors posted a sign at the entrance of Mill Creek Road inviting residents to meet and talk about what to do if fire comes to their one-way-in, one-way-out community.
Dozens have banded together in the two years since. They’ve put signs up marking a last-resort emergency evacuation route on logging roads, created plans to warn each other and keep regular contact with local fire officials. Menne spends hours each week clearing underbrush, cutting lower limbs from trees and whacking dry golden grasses down to near dirt.
“The fires were a wake-up call for all of us,” Menne said.
Vast areas of Sonoma County didn’t burn two years ago when fires broke out at night amid a windstorm and grew into infernos, forcing thousands of people to flee for their lives and destroying more than 5,300 homes. All told, the October 2017 fires scorched more than 245,000 acres across Northern California and killed at least 44 people, including 24 people in Sonoma County.
As the slow and costly recovery from the worst disaster in county history enters its third year, a growing movement of individual residents, public safety officials and government leaders are employing painful lessons from 2017 to prepare for the next calamity.
While much work still needs to be done, there have been significant changes - some visible, some not - to protect the public since flames destroyed a sense of security that many took for granted two years ago.
Local and state government agencies have spent billions of public dollars revamping emergency systems to prepare for large-scale disasters and defend communities threatened by them.
“Are we better prepared? Yes. Do we still have work to do? Absolutely,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “Emergency preparedness and fire prevention have become part of our culture here in California. We have to learn from the past.”
In the past two years, Cal Fire has transformed from a seasonal fire agency into a nearly year-round firefighting force. The state has infused Cal Fire’s budget with $240 million to enhance its ability to fight fires and increase the pace and scale of forest health and fire prevention work.
The agency is replacing its Vietnam War-era helicopters with a fleet of twin engine Blackhawk helicopters able to carry 1,000 gallons of retardant. The new copters will allow Cal Fire, for the first time, to launch air attacks at night.
Cal Fire Director Thom Porter said the state is bringing on more firefighting personnel, more engines and providing more funds for healthy forest and chaparral wildland projects - and he said this is part of an ongoing process to increase the state’s capacity to fight fire.
“I still need more bodies,” Porter said.
Porter said one of the biggest lessons from 2017 was the need to warn people earlier and evacuate them sooner. This, in turn, allows firefighters to get in and do their work more quickly, a critical element because today’s fires move faster and more erratically because of California’s increasingly dry, volatile climate conditions, Porter said.
“Every Californian needs to know that every acre that can burn will burn someday,” Porter said. “We just don’t know when that will happen. We need to be vigilant and prepared.”
One of the most powerful new tools in place today is a growing network of fire detection cameras that provide 360-degree views from 31 peaks and ridgetops across the North Bay. Sonoma County’s 911 dispatchers stay vigilant day and night with these cameras, which use infrared technology to see in the darkness. Since the first cameras were installed in the fall of 2018, they have already proved indispensable in helping firefighters knock blazes down early.
Dispatchers also have a new script to advise people trapped by fire, guidelines that have been become the gold standard protocol for wildfire emergencies and are now used by emergency dispatchers around the globe.
Sonoma County has dedicated nearly $1 million to put more firefighters and engines out onto the streets during dangerous fire weather. It also has launched a vegetation management program and overhauled its emergency services department, nearly tripling its budget and dedicating $2.5 million to build a better public warning system to alert people to life-threatening emergencies.