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These Sonoma County dispatchers stayed on the line to help others, even though their own homes were in peril from the flames

There was no playbook for confronting the 2017 North Bay fires, but thanks to these Sonoma County emergency dispatchers, now there is.|

About this series

October marks the fifth year since the North Bay firestorm that devastated the parts of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, destroying about 6,200 homes and claiming 40 lives. Throughout the month, a team of Press Democrat reporters, photographers and editors will revisit those harrowing days and weeks with an eye toward how the disaster impacted our region and how we come to grips with the inevitability of a future bout with catastrophic wildfire.

Week 1: How living with the reality of fire has changed us and the land we live on.

Week 2: Despite a $13.5 billion fund set aside by the courts for fire victims, many have yet to see what they’re owed.

Week 3: Fire took a physical and emotional toll on everyone, especially children.

Week 4: Tales of tragedy, tales of heroism. Where are they now?

Week 5: What we’ve learned, and how we’ll move forward.

For additional coverage, including podcast episodes and reporting honored with the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in 2018, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/fiveyearsafterfirestorms.

If you have a story to share, please email pdnews@pressdemocrat.com.

The woman on the line had called 911. She had her dog but was otherwise alone.

And she was terrified.

“She said she woke up and her whole house was surrounded by flames and she had no way out,” KT McNulty remembered.

Together, they tried to find a way for the woman to escape the flames, “any possible egress,” McNulty said.

There was nothing.

That night, McNulty was the supervisor overseeing Sonoma County’s 911 fire and medical dispatch center — Redcom — and she felt there was only one other option. It wasn’t part of her training, and she’d never instructed anyone to do it before.

“I said, ‘You need to get into the pool.’”

The woman didn’t. But she stayed on the line. And McNulty stayed with her.

“I don’t know why she didn’t, to this day,” she said. “I think she just panicked and maybe wasn’t hearing me.”

As the phones rang nonstop at Redwood Empire Dispatch Communications headquarters, where dispatchers sat shoulder to shoulder trying to make sense of what was unfolding and calm the terrified people on the other lines, McNulty stayed on this call.

“I was all she had left,” she said.

“Then I heard her and her dog start screaming,” she said. “The phone went dead.”

McNulty turned away from the console.

Quarters are tight. Colleagues hear each other working, hear the calls people are handling. Some details are shared on common screens in front of them.

They knew what was happening with McNulty and the woman on the other end of the line.

“I turned around to my team and said, ‘She didn’t make it. She passed,’” she said. “I wanted to turn around and vomit, but I was a supervisor, I had to keep it together for my team. The next phone call could have been just as imperiled.”

She took a moment and turned back toward her console.

“I needed to take the next call,” she said.

Unprecedented scope and fury

It was the night of Oct. 8, 2017, and into the morning of the Oct. 9, when a series of fires, unprecedented in scope and fury, roared west across Sonoma County.

The small crew of emergency dispatchers working in the call center on Ventura Avenue in Santa Rosa, began taking increasingly frantic calls about what would become an unfathomable disaster.

They didn’t know that the fires raging around Sonoma County and beyond -- the fires that threatened their homes, their families’ homes, their friends’ homes -- would become, for a time, the most destructive in California history.

They didn’t know that more than 5,300 Sonoma County families and homeowners would lose everything that night.

They didn’t know that 24 people in Sonoma County, and 16 others in Napa and Mendocino counties, would lose their lives.

And they didn’t know, and would not for some time, that the work they did that night, the calls they took, the way they navigated the disaster, would become the international model for how to handle wildfires that encroach on urban areas.

That knowledge and emotional processing, would only come with time and with reflection.

But on that night five years ago, all they knew was that the phones never stopped ringing.

“It flooded me, all the calls, people just terrified, ‘What do I do? I can’t get out of my house, the flames are everywhere, the road is blocked …’” Calista Pimentel

On one end of the calls were the firefighters, police officers and sheriff’s deputies and emergency medical technicians, all fanning out trying to meet the disaster head-on.

On the other end were callers — there were 1,400 in 24 hours — increasingly frightened and frantic about the chaos unfolding around them.

The calls came in from the hills on the eastern flank of the county, from the hills around Kenwood, from Fountaingrove, and from west of Highway 101 when the fire jumped six lanes of freeway plus shoulders and the median and burned the Coffey Park neighborhood to the ground.

Callers gave street names near where a dispatcher’s brother, or parents or friends lived.

The disaster was unfolding on the streets they knew.

But the tools they had, the protocols they had memorized over years of collective experience, none of it could match the enormity of those fires.

People who were used to fighting fires couldn’t fight these blazes — too many to count and whipped by 70 mph winds.

People whose job it is to staff the phone lines, identify the trouble and then send help, had no help to send.

Firefighters, emergency dispatchers and first-responders of all kinds help people through their worst, most terrifying moments every day.

It’s grueling and emotional work. But the rewards keep them coming back.

And the rewards are this: In those darkest moments, they are there to help. They have the resources to give aid.

But on the night of Oct. 8, the unfolding crisis was much larger than the resources at hand and dispatchers could give little aid other than instructions: Get out.

“How many people did I tell, ‘We can’t send anybody. You need to evacuate. You need to get out yourself,’” said 18-year Redcom veteran John Allen. “Call after call after call..."

That night and the days that followed not only changed how Evonne Stevens did her job, it changed her.

A dispatcher that night, Stevens has since been promoted to interim executive director at Redcom.

“The people that work in this, we have never felt we don’t have the people to send,” she said. “It felt horrible. This is not our norm. We are trained to send help but I also didn’t want to lie and say ‘We’re coming.’ When we could see no one was coming, I’d say, ‘I can’t promise they are going to make it there.”

She recalled, “There are so many fires.”

‘This isn’t going the right way’

“I just felt it,” Stevens said. “I thought, ‘This isn’t going the right way. I don’t feel like I have a handle on what is happening here. I felt like this thing is going crazy.’”

McNulty, the Redcom supervisor, now regional director at American Medical Response, said that the crew that night was the most experienced group she had.

“This is the team that you want,” she said. “It couldn’t have happened more perfectly that I had the best of the best already sitting down at the consoles when it began.”

Which is why when she and others began to go off script, guiding callers with any bits of information and intelligence about the inferno, she trusted what they were saying.

“I remember holding back once. The guy was screaming at me that I needed to get a fire engine to him. I never said, ‘No, I know. My house is there. My pets are there. My family is there.’ I just hold back. I said, ‘We are doing what we can.’” John Allen

The crew that was trained and guided by a precise script meant to bring the correct resources in the most efficient manner now had to leave the rules behind. There was no playbook for what they were seeing and hearing.

It was McNulty who first told someone to get into a pool. Others heard those instructions and followed suit.

They were looking at aerial maps and telling people to find a burned out area. Find a pond. Find a parking lot. Abandon the car.

“Our training is that we provide instruction on how to get through a situation,” McNulty said. “However, that night, ‘trapped by wildfire,’ didn’t really exist. So the work my dispatchers did that night ad hoc is now used world wide.”

No time to think

John Allen, working his normal shift at the Redcom console that night, said he didn’t really have time to think about what was unfolding.

“It was go go go; taking caller after caller,” he said.

He didn’t have time to think, but he had time to feel. And a piece of him knew.

As the calls continued to come in, each providing updates on the fast-moving fires that were now dotting the entire county, Allen knew his home was directly in the path of the Ridge fire, one of the dozen massive fires that broke out that night across the county, sparked by downed power lines and fueled by near gale-force winds.

A geodesic dome his father built when Allen was 7, the family home on Gardner Ranch Road off of Bennett Valley Road, was gone by the time Allen finished his shift.

Allen lived on the property with his parents, who were vacationing in Hawaii at the time.

But his beagle, Fergie, and Gordon the cat were home.

“You imagine the fire coming, you imagine putting your pets in the car,” he said. “But that’s not how it happened.”

He knew all of this as he helped guide others all night. Call after call came in, asking him what to do, where to go, how to get out.

Despite understanding what he was losing as he worked, Allen stayed at his station, picking up every call that came to his line.

Every call he took, every call that came in, helped paint a clearer picture of what was happening across the county. The enormity of what was unfolding became clearer as the night stretched into morning.

“We kept entering calls and they would put a flag on the map,” he said.

Allen said he almost felt sorry for callers who believed the fire in front of their eyes was the only emergency happening.

They couldn’t understand why no one was coming, where other resources could possibly be.

“You feel bad because they have no idea what else is going on,” Allen said. “They see one fire by their house and you tell them, ‘We have lots of fires, lots of structures.’”

“That night we had a much bigger perspective,” he said.

Everyone in the room knew where Allen’s house was and knew it was in peril. And they all heard him keep working.

“I remember holding back once. The guy was screaming at me that I needed to get a fire engine to him,” he said. “I never said, ‘No, I know. My house is there. My pets are there. My family is there.’ I just hold back. I said, ‘We are doing what we can.’”

And that meant guiding people to safety, whether that was telling them to drive south, or abandon their car, or find shelter in a pool.

In the morning, Allen got in his car and drove the road to his family’s home.

“I left around 7:30 that morning,” he said. “I was able to get through Bennett Valley and see the remains while it was still burning.”

And still, Allen sounds a note of gratitude, despite everything he went through.

“My parents were in Hawaii,” he said. “I was able to take some pictures and videos. People didn’t know for a couple of weeks whether their house survived or not.”

At least Allen knew.

‘Put me to work’

At the earliest signs that an extraordinary catastrophe unfolding, McNulty called in back up.

“When I sent out the call for help, I have never seen anything like it,” she said. “In almost 20 years at Redcom I had never seen an all-hands-on-deck call go out.”

Backups came in to give exhausted dispatchers a break. But even taking a break was a fraught endeavor.

“I knew my life was never going to be the same. A lot of people in this county were never going to be the same.” Evonne Stevens

Calista Pimentel, a lead dispatcher and veteran on that crew, had been on since 7 p.m.

She accepted an offer to step away for a moment and clear her head.

The opposite happened.

“It flooded me, all the calls, people just terrified, ‘What do I do? I can’t get out of my house, the flames are everywhere, the road is blocked …’” she said.

The voices echoed in her head.

Stepping away from the phones made things worse, she said.

“Either send me home or put me to work,” she said. “I can’t stop to think about it.”

Giving directions, remaining calm in the face of disaster, these were things Pimentel and her co-workers were trained to do.

Pimentel, who now works dispatch in Marin County, said there is an almost surreal focus to the work.

“When you are in work mode, you are doing what you have to do and moving on to next and getting it done,” she said. “But when you are not at the console? I didn’t want the emotions to overwhelm me.”

So she kept working.

“Especially when you work in the community that you live in, you want to help,” Pimentel said. “Everyone that works in EMS, they were showing up at work, all the firefighters and paramedics, they were off duty and they were showing up.”

A reality check

Stevens knew in real time that the events that night and in the days that followed would change her.

“Every once in awhile, you exchanged glances with each other like, ‘Can you believe this?’” she said. “But there was no choice to stop or change course. I knew my life was never going to be the same. A lot of people in this county were never going to be the same.”

But Stevens and others said they felt love from the community for all they had done that night and the nights that followed.

People brought food, classrooms of kids sent cards. Food trucks parked in front of the building on Ventura Avenue to serve weary employees.

People were encouraged to speak about their mental health and address the trauma they endured.

“Management was so supportive,” Stevens said. “They talked to each of us individually about managing our stress to make sure we were healthy and give you that emotional connection.”

“There were just a lot of little things to let us know they had our backs,” Stevens said.

What they went through five years ago did not scare them away from the work.

But that’s not to say it didn’t scare them.

“I think a lot of us were shook up and questioning ourselves,” Stevens said. “It’s hard to work a night like that and feel super confident. The disaster happened and it was horrible and we didn’t have any resources to send.”

“That feeling of safety kind of dissipated,” she said. “Maybe it was a false sense of security. This was a reality check.”

And like the fire changed the people who worked that night, it also changed how emergency responders deal with wildfires.

Dispatchers work from scripts that help them get answers, and provide assistance as quickly as possible to callers in distress.

On their computer screens, dispatchers type in a callers’ response and up pops the next question.

But five years ago, there was no script for urban wildfires.

Thanks to how the crew in Santa Rosa handled that night — the questions they asked, the follow-up — now there is.

Redcom wrote a dispatcher script that provides step-by-step instruction based on callers’ responses to questions.

Today, there are heat- and flame-detecting cameras that use artificial intelligence posted throughout the county that were not there in 2017.

“That night we couldn’t tell what was going on until we could see it,” McNulty said. “It was chaos.”

But today, there are updated and precise evacuation zones and maps. There are more emergency systems in place to alert residents to impending evacuation.

A small room off the main dispatch center now house large, black crates that hold portable dispatch units if headquarters are ever on the verge of an evacuation like they were five years ago.

For her work that night and her ability to stray from a professional script that did not apply to the disaster unfolding, McNulty was named Dispatcher of the Year by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch for her work in 2017.

The work the Redcom team did that night and the nights that followed was studied and now provides the foundation of international protocols for fire and ambulance dispatchers.

They quite literally rewrote the rule book.

‘There is no gauge’

Today Allen makes his home in Cloverdale, while his parents have moved off of Bennett Ridge.

He said he’s wrestled with not knowing if the people he talked to that night made it out safely, and if he offered them what they needed in their moment of crisis.

“How can you ever know how much you helped or didn’t help?” he said. “There is no gauge.”

The fires five years ago changed how the community interacts with 911. Now people call when the wind blows. They call when they smell smoke.

There is an uneasiness that was born five years ago that has not abated. Dispatchers hear it in the voices of callers all of the time.

But on those calls too, they do their best to reassure, to give information and to move to the next call.

That is what they did that night five years ago, and it’s what they have done every night since.

It’s their job.

“Once you know your family is OK, you just want to come in and help,” Pimentel said. “That first morning when I got home, I just cried and hugged my family.”

Then she put together a go bag, got some rest and headed back to work.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

About this series

October marks the fifth year since the North Bay firestorm that devastated the parts of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, destroying about 6,200 homes and claiming 40 lives. Throughout the month, a team of Press Democrat reporters, photographers and editors will revisit those harrowing days and weeks with an eye toward how the disaster impacted our region and how we come to grips with the inevitability of a future bout with catastrophic wildfire.

Week 1: How living with the reality of fire has changed us and the land we live on.

Week 2: Despite a $13.5 billion fund set aside by the courts for fire victims, many have yet to see what they’re owed.

Week 3: Fire took a physical and emotional toll on everyone, especially children.

Week 4: Tales of tragedy, tales of heroism. Where are they now?

Week 5: What we’ve learned, and how we’ll move forward.

For additional coverage, including podcast episodes and reporting honored with the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in 2018, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/fiveyearsafterfirestorms.

If you have a story to share, please email pdnews@pressdemocrat.com.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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