Sonoma County unprepared, uncoordinated in emergency response to October wildfires, state review finds
Sonoma County was not prepared to alert residents of an impending natural disaster on the scale of October's wildfires, with emergency staff not up to speed on the most effective method to reach those in harm's way and authorities hampered by a warning system that was not well coordinated between various local agencies, an independent state review has found.
The firestorm, which erupted in the middle of the night and advanced within hours on thousands of local homes, quickly overwhelmed a system better equipped to handle more familiar and isolated disasters, such as flooding in the Russian River Valley, according to Mark Ghilarducci, California's top emergency services official.
The agency he leads, the Office of Emergency Services, is concluding a review of the county's warning system and Ghilarducci was in Santa Rosa on Tuesday to share the preliminary findings with county officials in a closed-door meeting.
“Sonoma County is on the right side, mostly, on a preparedness level,” Ghilarducci said in an interview afterwards. “But when you think about these particular circumstances, they were caught short. And they, I would say, weren't as prepared as they needed to be.”
Ghilarducci and county Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore discussed the preliminary findings in interviews Tuesday. The final report is due out within days, potentially before a highly anticipated board meeting on the topic next week.
The review was focused on county policy and procedures and is not seen as an exhaustive investigation into the decision-making and job performance of individual county officials.
Gore said the conclusions were not unexpected.
“To tell you the honest truth, a lot of it was not surprising to me,” said Gore. “It tracks a lot of the discussions ... He said basically there definitely were some coordination and some training issues.”
The state report is the first outside review of the county's much-criticized decision not to send widespread wireless warnings, taking advantage of technology that could have reached thousands more people through their cellphones. That tool was used in Lake County during the October firestorm, but Sonoma County officials had ruled it out long before the disaster, saying they weren't confident the messages could be targeted to areas smaller than the entire county.
But Ghilarducci said his office's assessment has indicated county emergency management staff members were not fully aware of the how those messages could be more finely targeted to reach those in imminent danger. Wireless emergency alerts have become more sophisticated, Ghilarducci said and “that was not either known or understood by the county emergency management staff.”
“They just were not aware of the improvements that had been made in that system over the last couple years,” he said.
Further, emergency response agencies in the county suffered from an uncoordinated approach, with too many messages on different platforms such as the opt-in Nixle and SoCo Alert programs, Ghilarducci said. His office is recommending the county better coordinate those platforms or consolidate to one.
SoCo Alerts, which requires recipients to sign up for email and cellphone alerts, was launched just last year. During the first hours of the fire, it failed to connect with more than half the telephone numbers in its database, according to county records. Damaged cellphone towers and downed utility lines were to blame, county officials said.
Ghilarducci and other state emergency officials shared the early findings with Gore, Supervisor Shirlee Zane, County Administrator Sheryl Bratton, County Counsel Bruce Goldstein and Jim Colangelo, the interim director of the county's Fire and Emergency Services department, according to Gore.
He stressed Sonoma County was not uniquely unprepared compared to other parts of the state.
“The only ones that are prepared are the ones that have been hit in the face by disasters recently,” Gore said. “It shows you that we're not learning the lessons quick enough from our brothers and sisters in other areas.”
The county requested the state review in late November amid heavy criticism from residents who questioned why they didn't receive any warning about the wind-fueled wildfires that menaced and destroyed homes late Oct. 8 and early Oct. 9. The most destructive blaze, the Tubbs fire, started in Napa County and reached Santa Rosa, 12 miles away, in four hours, destroying more than 3,000 homes in city limits. Altogether, more than 5,100 homes were lost in the fires and 24 people killed in the county.
The state still has more work to do on the report, including additional interviews with county staff members. Supervisors are expected to discuss the emergency alerts at their Tuesday meeting, and Gore said he wants the state review to be part of that conversation - even if the report is not yet final by then.
You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org.