Sonoma County residents step up emergency preparedness after 2017 firestorm

Residents across Sonoma County are more educated on recognizing fire weather, are prepared to more quickly evacuate and have made efforts to harden their homes against flames.|

How to sign up for emergency warnings

Residents can sign up to receive various emergency alerts to their phone or email and monitor different applications to be better prepared for wildfires and other emergencies.

Here are some of the services that can help residents stay in the loop.

Wireless Emergency Alerts

Most cellphone users automatically receive Wireless Emergency Alerts broadcast by federal, state, tribal and local authorities. The Amber Alert-style messages send push notifications to cellphones during extreme weather or disaster and can alert residents about evacuations.

If you’re not receiving WEA alerts, check the notifications settings on your phone where you can customize what kinds of alerts you want to receive, or check with your wireless provider.

Critical alerts should bypass silent mode or “do not disturb” settings on cell phones but you may have to manually toggle the override in your settings.

SoCo Alerts

First responders can send messages directly to users via text, email and prerecorded calls during an emergency, including evacuation notices, shelter-in-place orders or other advisories. Residents can sign up for alerts online and customize the types of notifications they want to receive.

Sonoma County and Santa Rosa officials have used utility billing information to sign up residents to reach as many people as possible during an emergency.

Nixle

Nixle allows public safety agencies to communicate with the public about local emergencies. The app enables real-time, two-way communication with police, firefighters, and other public safety workers through text, email, voice messages and social media. Nixle is a free service and can be customized so that you only receive alerts about events in your area. To sign up, go to nixle.com.

Watch Duty app

Watch Duty provides users with real-time information about fire movement and firefighting efforts in your area. Watch Duty covers all of California. Download it from the Apple App Store or Google Play.

Credit: Kylie Lawrence

Five years ago, Oakmont resident Katy Carrel wondered over lunch with a friend whether their neighborhood was prepared for the next large-scale disaster.

It had been only about a month since a dozen October wildfires erupted overnight across Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties, making for the most destructive California firestorm on record at that time.

The largest of those blazes, the 55,556-acre Nuns Fire, tore through Sonoma Valley and menaced Oakmont, burning within a few block of Carrel’s home.

Nestled on the valley floor and benchland between the forested mountains of Sugarloaf Ridge and Trione-Annadel state parks, the 55-plus community is home to about 4,600 residents on Santa Rosa’s eastern edge.

Official maps include it as among the city’s most fire-prone areas. But it escaped heavy damage in the 2017 firestorm, losing just two homes — including the house of county Supervisor Susan Gorin — even as thousands of residents fled in the middle of the night, many with no warning.

Carrel knew it could’ve been much more catastrophic, so she and others got to work.

“If we’re not prepared and don’t have our ducks better in a row, we are going to end up looking like a Coffey Park,” said Carrel, referring to the northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood where more than 1,400 homes were lost. One official at the time compared it to a war zone.

An aerial view of the destruction in the Coffey Park area in northwest Santa Rosa caused by the Tubbs fire in October 2017. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
An aerial view of the destruction in the Coffey Park area in northwest Santa Rosa caused by the Tubbs fire in October 2017. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

“If one home goes up, it’s going to spread,” Carrel said.

In the years since, she and others have spearheaded one of a constellation of citizen-led efforts to revamp disaster preparedness groups and neighborhood emergency plans. They’ve held town halls to educate residents on how to prepare for evacuations and how to recognize extreme fire weather. They have updated community landscaping requirements to mitigate the risk of brush and trees igniting homes.

The 2017 firestorm, which in Sonoma County alone destroyed more than 5,300 homes and killed 24 people, revealed the region was unprepared for a large-scale disaster. The failure sent victims, emergency officials and elected leaders in search of ways to equip the community for future emergencies.

Now, there is a better understanding of the risk such rampaging wildfires pose even to city dwellers, and a profound cultural shift has occurred about the need for disaster readiness — at all times of the year, and especially during periods of peak fire danger.

Local leaders point to that change as one of the biggest impacts in preparing the region for the next megafire particularly amid a changing climate and persistent drought.

“To go from zero to 60 in one season was a lot for our community to take in,” said Paul Lowenthal, a division chief and fire marshal with Santa Rosa Fire Department. “The community is so much more prepared now to both prevent and react to a wildfire.”

Preparedness ‘built into the fabric of the community’

Education events ahead of fire season were poorly attended before 2017, Lowenthal said. Much of the focus for both emergency managers and residents was a catastrophic earthquake.

“Sonoma County had dodged a bullet for so long that in a roundabout way the lack of fire activity almost hurt us a little bit,” he said. “We were watching a lot of fires happening in Lake, Napa, all around us, but it almost felt like our community was immune.”

The North Bay firestorm, however, thrust the community into action like never before, and authorities ever since have residents hungry for information.

Lowenthal, who lost his home in Larkfield in the Tubbs Fire and was tasked with leading the city’s recovery and resiliency efforts, said local leaders took advantage of this new heightened awareness.

Fire officials have offered workshops and communitywide fairs to help residents better prepare for fire season and other disasters. And they’ve provided them with tools, such as weather radios that can notify them of an emergency and go bags so they’re ready to go at a moment’s notice.

There is greater interest in efforts to protect homes, too, through building defensible space and home hardening, in part a response to home insurance changes. Building codes have been updated at the local and state level to require higher standards in high-risk fire zones.

Lowenthal said since 2017, the department has seen a huge uptick in the volume of requests from residents for home assessments.

“Before 2017, being fire safe was just cutting down dry grass to four inches,” he said.

Fire preparedness efforts have also brought neighbors together. Many have been assembled under the banner of Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies, or COPE, groups.

Priscilla Abercrombie, board chair of COPE Northern Sonoma County, said the growing number of such groups can help bridge communications between emergency officials and residents and create a system where neighbors can rely on each other in emergencies.

After the 2017 fires, organizers heard from residents in Geyserville and Mill Creek who wanted to band together to form similar preparedness groups, said Abercrombie, who lives on Fitch Mountain near Healdsburg.

Today, the group includes about 40 communities in the north county, she said.

They’ve built a template for preparedness that can be deployed across the communities and tweaked for individual community needs, she said.

The work has led to the development of detailed maps of their communities to ensure there is accurate geographic information that can be used by residents and first responders during evacuations and emergencies. They have a texting platform where fire officials and COPE leaders can share information about emergencies and needs, information that can then be quickly disseminated to a list of residents.

They’ve participated in evacuation drills and applied for grants to do roadside vegetation management and deployed weather radios to residents.

Now they’re focusing on better connecting with vulnerable residents in their communities such as those who speak Spanish and older adults who might have limited mobility or trouble evacuating, and ensuring there are redundancies in place so everyone is alerted when it counts.

Sonoma County Emergency Management Director Christopher Godley said COPE groups and other similar resident preparedness programs have changed how neighborhoods, especially in more rural areas, respond to and prepare for disasters.

Less than a handful of those efforts were known to exist before the firestorm. Now there are more than 70 across Sonoma County, he said.

Preparedness, Godley said, “has been built into the fabric of the community now.”

Oakmont a model for preparedness

Iris Harrell stepped out of her Oakmont home around 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 9, 2017 to find a red glow over Kenwood, the smell of smoke wafting through the area.

She received a call from Carrel who urged her and her wife Ann Benson — the friend who would later have that fateful lunchtime conversation with Carrel — to leave. They jumped into action, grabbed their pets, medication, important documents and agreed to meet at the Whole Foods on Yulupa Avenue in Bennett Valley.

“It was just totally chaotic,” Harrell said. “You could see fire in all direction.”

Harrell called 911 and described to the dispatcher what was unfolding in front of her. The dispatcher was aware — there were fires all across the region.

Harrell does not want to go through such a horrific experience again.

Residents in Oakmont started their COPE group in cooperation with the Santa Rosa Fire Department in the mid-2000s, but the neighborhood group and other community emergency efforts needed to be revamped.

Carrel and Harrell worked to reorganize a defunct Firewise Committee and launch new efforts like Map Your Neighborhood, which like COPE prioritizes neighbors relying on each other during emergencies, to better prepare Oakmont for the next fire.

Tips for hardening your home against wildfires

— Trim branches that are overhanging the structure.

— Prune branches of large trees up to 6 to 10 feet from the ground.

— Remove plants that contain resins, oils and waxes.

— Create defensible space around the home, using crushed stone or gravel instead of flammable mulches within 5 feet of the structure.

— Consider buying a “class A” fire-rated roof. Those that are made of composite shingles, metal, concrete and clay tiles provide the best protection.

— Clear dry leaves and other litter from gutters and vents and install screens on roof and attic vents to prevent embers from going inside.

For more information about mitigating fire risks and preparing for disasters, visit the National Fire Protection Association’s website.

They’ve also prioritized efforts to better safeguard homes.

Two “Fire Safe Fairs” brought together experts on home hardening and emergency preparedness and vendors who could work with homeowners to upgrade their homes.

One of the biggest undertakings has been eradicating Oakmont’s junipers, the highly flammable evergreens that can function like blowtorches in wildfires. They held two “Junk the Juniper” campaigns encouraging residents to voluntarily remove the combustible invasive trees and shrubs and hired a company to chip and haul the waste.

Now, under new community policies, junipers are outlawed in the area. Residents will be required to remove them and the neighborhood’s homeowners association will be conducting inspections starting with the highest risk areas, Carrel said.

They’ve made other updates to the community’s building and landscaping requirements, too, to reduce the use of flammable materials like wood in new decks and build 5-foot buffers between structures and flammable materials.

“You have to do every little thing you can to reduce the chances that one ember will take down your house,” Harrell said.

The work couldn’t have come soon enough.

Just three years later Sonoma Valley was again ablaze. The Glass Fire stormed over the mountains from Napa County into eastern Santa Rosa, burning more than 330 Sonoma County homes.

Six of those homes were in Oakmont.

Still, the community’s efforts have paid off, Carrel and Harrell said.

Now, they’re focused on addressing evacuation routes, lobbying the city to add a second exit out of Oakmont on Channel Drive and pushing for the expansion of Highway 12, which currently is the only road leading in and out of the neighborhood and was clogged during evacuation during both fires.

And they’re continuing their education efforts, targeting new residents and those that have been hesitant to make change.

Efforts to prepare and harden homes can’t happen by piecemeal, there needs to be community buy-in in order for it to work, they said.

“The 2017 fires took everybody by surprise and really jolted us out of complacency,” Carrel said. “We are in a much better place now but there’s always more work to do.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paulina Pineda at 707-521-5268 or paulina.pineda@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @paulinapineda22.

How to sign up for emergency warnings

Residents can sign up to receive various emergency alerts to their phone or email and monitor different applications to be better prepared for wildfires and other emergencies.

Here are some of the services that can help residents stay in the loop.

Wireless Emergency Alerts

Most cellphone users automatically receive Wireless Emergency Alerts broadcast by federal, state, tribal and local authorities. The Amber Alert-style messages send push notifications to cellphones during extreme weather or disaster and can alert residents about evacuations.

If you’re not receiving WEA alerts, check the notifications settings on your phone where you can customize what kinds of alerts you want to receive, or check with your wireless provider.

Critical alerts should bypass silent mode or “do not disturb” settings on cell phones but you may have to manually toggle the override in your settings.

SoCo Alerts

First responders can send messages directly to users via text, email and prerecorded calls during an emergency, including evacuation notices, shelter-in-place orders or other advisories. Residents can sign up for alerts online and customize the types of notifications they want to receive.

Sonoma County and Santa Rosa officials have used utility billing information to sign up residents to reach as many people as possible during an emergency.

Nixle

Nixle allows public safety agencies to communicate with the public about local emergencies. The app enables real-time, two-way communication with police, firefighters, and other public safety workers through text, email, voice messages and social media. Nixle is a free service and can be customized so that you only receive alerts about events in your area. To sign up, go to nixle.com.

Watch Duty app

Watch Duty provides users with real-time information about fire movement and firefighting efforts in your area. Watch Duty covers all of California. Download it from the Apple App Store or Google Play.

Credit: Kylie Lawrence

Paulina Pineda

Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park city reporter

Decisions made by local elected officials have some of the biggest day-to-day impacts on residents, from funding investments in roads and water infrastructure to setting policies to address housing needs and homelessness. As a city reporter, I want to track those decisions and how they affect the community while also highlighting areas that are being neglected or can be improved.

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