State issues report on flaws in Sonoma County wildfire alerts

A new state report found Sonoma County emergency staff failed to prepare for the kind of fast-moving wildfires that broke out in October and had an outdated understanding of technology they could have used to alert people in harm’s way.|

Sonoma County emergency staff failed to prepare for the kind of fast-moving wildfires that broke out in October and had an outdated understanding of technology they could have used to alert people in harm’s way, shortcomings that left people in the path of a deadly fire without any warning, state officials said in a report released Monday.

State experts on public warning technologies and procedures said Sonoma County’s plans and systems were “uncoordinated” when the fires broke out Oct. 8 and its warning capabilities “included gaps, overlaps, and redundancies,” according to the report produced by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

While focused on public warnings, the report also found the county had no protocols in place that night to help it assess the locations, magnitude and spread of the fires - a deficit stemming from a lack of preparation for the kind of coordination and communication needed between agencies during a fast-moving crisis, according to Mark Ghilarducci, California’s top emergency services official.

“The disaster, the events, got out in front of them. They could not catch up,” Ghilarducci said during a conference call Monday about the report.

The state’s independent review comes on the heels of public outcry over the lack of warnings in October as multiple fires menaced a 40-mile spread of eastern Sonoma County, from Lakeville Highway in the south to Geyserville in the north.

Following a series of stories by The Press Democrat, the county has changed its alerting policies and reassigned its emergency services manager, Christopher Helgren, chiefly responsible for the controversial decision to avoid using a government push-notification program called Wireless Emergency Alert that could have forced messages to people’s cellphones.

The state report’s findings underscore the shortcomings of the county’s strategy for warning people about imminent danger, which was to use opt-in messaging programs - through two different third-party programs, Nixle and SoCo Alert - that only reached people who had signed up beforehand in addition to landline telephones.

So while emergency officials began sending a series of warning messages to the public at 10:51 p.m. Oct. 8, few people received them because of limitations to the methods used by the county. The report also highlighted deficient training for county staff responsible for warning the public that resulted in confusion about who had authority to send public warnings and a lack of training on what effective emergency messages should say.

The county was prepared for emergencies that evolve at a slower pace, such as storms and floods, and less so for fast-moving fires requiring urgent public warnings and rapid evacuations, Ghilarducci said.

“Although they had systems in place - they had plans in place in who was going to issue alerts and how they were going to do that - they fell short,” Ghilarducci said. “There were gaps. There were shortcomings.”

County Administrator Sheryl Bratton, the county’s top emergency official during the fires, said the report was an accurate analysis of the county’s response, and its shortcomings, during the first 12 to 24 hours of the emergency.

Bratton said the county is going to launch a review of the emergency services division tasked with planning for worst-case scenarios. The small unit is located within the county’s embattled fire services department, which had no permanent director when the fires ignited in October. Among the considerations will be whether to shift the division to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, a common setup in other counties across the state.

The state report is a key tool that Bratton will use to understand what happened the night of the fires. Although she is the top official responsible for implementing the county’s emergency plan, she said she wasn’t focused during the first night of the fires on the methods being used to warn the public.

“As the emergency director, under the way it all works, it is ultimately my responsibility,” Bratton said.

For Sonoma County residents who survived the fires, many have described harrowing experiences fleeing with fire on their heels. Many among them have criticized public officials for failing to help them get out sooner.

More than four months after Jeannie Wdowych escaped before fire destroyed her home near Riebli and Mark West Springs roads, she is still troubled by the fact that she received no warning.

She had fallen asleep on a downstairs couch with the television on, her cellphone nearby.

The firestorm shattered a sliding glass door and windows in her home sometime around or after midnight, startling her awake. Her house was on fire. She drove away, but was eventually forced to abandon the car and flee on foot, a harrowing escape that haunts her still.

Wdowych suspects the fires prevented any calls from getting through to her landline, but she wishes the county would have used cellphone alerts.

“I never go to bed without a phone like two feet from my face,” Wdowych said. “I’m always on alert. … There is no way I would not have heard a warning if it got through.”

The Press Democrat reported in November that Helgren and his staff had, more than a year before the fires, ruled out using Wireless Emergency Alert messages to send public warnings and didn’t consider the tool during the October firestorm. The state report highlights this decision, made in 2016 when the county purchased the software capable of sending Wireless Emergency Alerts.

A county spokeswoman Monday said Helgren was on leave and couldn’t be reached for comment.

The state review concluded Helgren’s decision was “influenced by a limited awareness and understanding of the WEA System and outdated information regarding WEA’s technical capabilities.”

State evaluators challenged the county emergency service division staff’s reasons against using the Wireless Emergency Alerts, commonly used for Amber Alert child abduction messages. The county’s evacuation planning was based on storm situations and periodic flooding of the Russian River, threats that tend to be more gradual in onset and within a smaller geographic area than fires, the report said.

The county’s alert procedures and plans “were misunderstood or not directly applicable to this fast-moving, complex fire situation,” the report said.

State evaluators also disregarded an argument against using Wireless Emergency Alerts, one Helgren explained in a November interview with The Press Democrat, that the messages were too short, limited to 90 characters, and therefore wouldn’t provide sufficient information.

“A timely abbreviated message is preferable to a thorough message delivered too late,” the report stated.

County staff and other officials interviewed by the state experts said the decision against using Wireless Emergency Alert system wasn’t discussed or reconsidered the night of the fires.

Bratton said Helgren was moved to a different job in risk management, effective Feb. 15, in order to ensure community confidence during future disasters.

Last week, Ghilarducci briefed county officials on the review’s preliminary findings, and the report released Monday is not a significant departure from that discussion.

Ghilarducci stressed in a cover letter to the report that it is not an investigation into the specific decisions behind the emergency notification process, nor is it meant to provide “conclusive findings” regarding the actions of any individual.

“Did they move their resources? Yes. Did they respond to the disaster? They did all of the above, but their processes and their capabilities fell short,” Ghilarducci said.

Board of Supervisors chairman James Gore, who was briefed on the review’s preliminary findings last week, said he wasn’t surprised by the final. He described it as “a mandate to act” and said the county needs to embrace the findings enthusiastically.

“Emergency management, disaster response, is a time where you either rise or fall - there’s no in-between,” Gore said. “It’s either you did everything you could or you didn’t.”

To read the state's full report, click on the following text: Public Alert and Warning Program Assessment for Sonoma County

Staff Writer J.D. Morris contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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