Rebuilding Sonoma County: Tragedy turns daughter of fire victim into advocate for better emergency warnings

What could have saved Linda Tunis?

More than one year after the October 2017 firestorm, that question continues to haunt her daughter. Jessica Tunis can still hear her mother’s final words spoken over the phone, saying her home at Journey’s End mobile home park in Santa Rosa was burning and she was afraid. Tunis pleaded with her mother to go outside. The line went dead.

For Tunis, the list of alternative scenarios that could have spared her mother is long: a rescue by neighbors or first responders, better forest management, buried powerlines.

One option rises to the top. She could have been warned.

The staggering speed and destructive power of the half-dozen major fires that ignited the night of Oct. 8, 2017, during a fierce windstorm caught tens of thousands of people by surprise, forcing residents across a wide swath of the county - from rural enclaves in Sonoma Valley to suburban Santa Rosa neighborhoods - to flee for their lives.

The fires exposed grave weaknesses in how emergency officials in Sonoma County prepared for disasters. Critical among those failings was how people were warned about imminent danger.

The fire had been burning more than four hours when Tunis and her mother shared that final phone call - the only apparent warning Linda Tunis received that night.

Over the past 14 months, Jessica Tunis has emerged as a leading voice pushing emergency officials statewide to adopt more aggressive and comprehensive methods of warning people - through cellphone push notifications, social media messages, electronic billboards, television and radio interruptions - about wildfires and other imminent dangers.

She never could have anticipated such a personal mission, but it’s brought purpose to the relentless waves of grief.

“We need to use all the alerts we have at our disposal,” said Tunis, 50, of Santa Rosa. “Why wouldn’t you use every possible alert you have to save lives? Even if it saved one life. It makes me sick.”

The past year has brought profound change to Santa Rosa and other communities hit by deadly fires in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties.

Neighborhoods that were reduced to rubble are once again taking shape with framed houses. Nearly 1,400 of the 5,334 homes destroyed in Sonoma County are under construction and ?114 have been completed, allowing a small but growing number of fire survivors to return home.

One by one, a handful of the estimated ?55 stand-alone businesses destroyed in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County have begun to reopen. Checkers at the Trader Joe’s on Cleveland Avenue, which was heavily damaged in the Tubbs fire and only reopened last month, welcome patrons with by saying: “Thank you for coming back.”

But some rebuilding doesn’t happen with hammers and nails.

There are countless regular people who have taken up leadership roles, large and small, to help themselves and their neighbors recover.

Teachers, bookkeepers and homemakers have found themselves becoming experts in debris removal, insurance claims and construction. Some have stepped into the public arena to champion new laws and policies, while others have sought to help by sharing their insights with people facing the same challenges. A group from Coffey Park, for example, traveled to Butte County this month to pass on the lessons they’ve learned with people from Paradise and other communities devastating by the Camp fire.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said burned-out residents and people who lost family have “changed the work of county supervisors in a good way.”

“They’re helping to shape policy and I’m indebted to them,” Zane said.

Tunis is a central figure among people with lives indelibly marked by the fires who have become forceful advocates for overhaul of emergency warning systems.

The deadly toll from the 2017 October firestorm - which killed 40 people in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties - proved communities and public safety agencies must create innovative ways to prepare for large-scale disasters in the wake of larger, more deadly fires erupting year after year. Warning systems must adapt to the declining number of people with landline telephones and serve people who don’t sign up for opt-in warning programs, including visitors from outside the area.

More than a year later, local officials and public safety leaders have changed their attitudes and methods of warning people about emergencies. They have begun overhauling systems for detecting fires during those critical early moments and boosted firefighting corps during the hot, windy, dry weather that can fuel dangerous fires.

Tunis’ journey as an advocate for better warnings began at local town hall meetings held in the weeks and months after the 2017 fires. From there, she’s became a close observer of public meetings before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and has traveled to the state Capitol, where she told lawmakers about her mother’s death and the warnings she believe could have prevented it.

That fateful night last year, Tunis was watching the glow of the fire from the Rincon Valley senior apartment complex she manages. She was worried about her elderly residents, but had no idea she should be concerned for her mother, who lived miles away, to the west near Highway 101.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said he recalls hearing Tunis share the frustration and guilt she faces knowing she could have driven across town to rescue her mother, had she only been warned the fire was heading that direction. McGuire invited her to Sacramento to testify in support of a bill he helped write to create new public warning standards for counties. It has since become law.

McGuire credited Tunis’ lucid testimony with garnering support for the standards, which had been proposed in prior years but failed.

“Linda went to bed the night of Oct. 8 just like the rest of us, but she never received an emergency alert, which is absolutely unacceptable,” McGuire said. “Jessica has turned what was an earth-shattering tragedy into a law that will save thousands of lives in the years to come.”

But progress is incremental, with clear setbacks again this year.

The major fires that erupted this summer and fall in California showed that communities built in woodland areas remain at severe risk of catastrophic infernos. The fires - particularly the Carr fire in Shasta County and the Camp fire in Butte County - prove warning systems remain insufficient across the state.

When the Camp fire broke out Nov. 8 near the community of Pulga in the Sierra foothills, sheriff’s officials thought they were prepared with opt-in emergency warning systems and evacuation protocols they had tested in advance.

But emergency phone calls triggered by authorities to warn Paradise residents failed to reach more than a third of the minority who had signed up for the warnings, the Los Angeles Times reported last month. The success rate plummeted even further after the fire disabled cellphone towers and residents jammed the remaining phone lines, the newspaper reported.

As in Sonoma County, thousands of people fled the foothill communities in Butte County without any advance warning or with notice provided only by concerned neighbors and loved ones.

“It’s unacceptable in this state that’s home to Silicon Valley that we can’t get an emergency alert to Californians no matter where they are or what time of day and night,” McGuire said.

The death toll from the Camp fire currently stands at 88. Tunis said she was transfixed with watching the same horror - only in greater numbers - occur all over again, and it sent her into shock for a time, as if all her effort over the past year had come to nothing.

“I was checking the death count every day,” Tunis said. “It re-traumatizes you. You relive it all over again. You start living through your own nightmare again.”

Tunis no longer puts her cellphone on silent at night. She got a landline phone, which she hadn’t had in 15 years.

When Sonoma County and Santa Rosa officials conducted a September test of the government’s cellphone push notification system, called Wireless Emergency Alerts, Tunis took time off work so she could drive to the neighborhoods where it would be tested and see if the message pinged her phone. She’s tracked the results as if she were in charge of a local emergency agency, questioning why the push notification didn’t override the silent setting on her cellphone.

She believes the new law authored by McGuire should have made it mandatory for California’s 58 counties to be able to warn people using the most technologically advanced methods, rather than the incentive-?based programs now being developed to encourage counties to comply with the new standards.

Her focus on warning systems has both bolstered and at times stressed her relationship of about 16 years with her boyfriend, Jon Deavers, 56, of Santa Rosa. At one point several months after the fires, she said, Deavers needed a break from discussing the disaster but Tunis was not ready to let it take a backseat to daily life.

“You come out on the other side of something like this with a certain sense of obligation,” Deavers said. “You confront regret and ‘what ifs’ and you try to channel that into something positive and to something productive. That’s what compels her.”

Tunis said she felt her job was to tell local and state policymakers directly about her grief and how strongly she felt such loss was preventable.

“I just wanted to tell them to their faces that I was upset,” Tunis said. “I was grateful to see they were taking it seriously. Obviously they have a lot of work ahead of them.”

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

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