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.