Sonoma County residents step up emergency preparedness after 2017 firestorm
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.
“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.