Sonoma County leaders in fire recovery and response share their year-end outlook
Press Democrat reporters spoke this month with three civic leaders who have helped steer disaster response and recovery in our region. A common thread in their comments: the enormous challenges laid down by wildfires since 2017, the progress made to get survivors back on their feet, and the work still to be done to ensure residents and first responders are prepared for future emergencies. Here are excerpts of the three interviews, edited for clarity and brevity.
Gossman is a deputy Sonoma County administrator and director of the Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which tracks and supports the ongoing community recovery from the 2017 wildfires. Gossman has been with the county for 19 years, but before the fires he was the chief financial officer for Sonoma Water, the county water agency. In the days following the fires, Gossman found his calling in disaster recovery and preparation. (Interviewed by Tyler Silvy)
Q: You oversee the Office of Recovery and Resiliency. What does resiliency mean, and who is it for?
A: It’s really coming back better than we were before. And that’s for everybody. It’s really the ability to bounce back from future disasters.
Q: How do you measure resiliency? Have you seen progress from what you saw in the wake of the 2017 fires compared to what you saw during the Kincade fire this year?
A: In terms of measuring resiliency, I don’t know if there’s a way. We identified several goals and initiatives. But it’s almost a gut feel thing, and we felt it in the Kincade fire and we felt it in the (February) flood. The community, I think felt like, “They’ve got this.”
Q: Have you had a chance to reflect on some successful work from the past year? If so, could you share your thoughts on where the county has seen success?
A: We had several successful evacuation exercises that prepared not only individual communities, but disaster preparedness staff. I think Sonoma Ready Day, having happened right before the Kincade fire, was timely - it got the word out that emergency preparedness, and being ready for the next disaster, is everybody’s responsibility. In terms of recovery, I think we did make huge progress in 2019 in terms of getting homes rebuilt. Also, really working on defensible space, revamping websites ... we saw a lot of good legislation - extending (insurance additional living expenses) three years, which is now a mandate. Even though we’ve come so far since 2017, what we’re not doing is saying, “OK, wrote that manual” and putting it on the shelf.
Q: How about failures or challenges encountered this year. What are some of the biggest?
A: I think we faced real challenges this year in terms of insurance companies being willing to (extend living expenses). Sometimes it felt like pushing that boulder up the hill. We did get that state audit report ... and it talked a lot about the failures we had in the past.
Q: When you look ahead, into 2020, there’s more work to do, certainly. What successes are left hanging out there for Sonoma County to capture? What could stand in the way?
A: What I really want to see in 2020 is bringing in money from federal and state government to get a construction hardening program ... to reduce risk to the rest of the community. Vegetation management is a huge challenge. People need help in terms of resources to get that done. There’s a dearth of funding. We’re looking at state and federal grant programs.
Q: How different is this role from your previous work with the water agency? And did you ever envision charting a career in disaster recovery and resiliency?
A: No. It’s so different. The job at the water agency was challenging. But you don’t have a lot of community engagement in that role. We’re working so directly with the community, having such a direct impact ... it’s way more challenging to me, but it’s way, way more satisfying.
Jones, 51, has been the chief of Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit since May 2016. As chief, Jones oversees more than 500 employees at the? peak of fire season in Sonoma, Lake, Napa, Yolo, Colusa and Solano counties. The new year marks her 20th working for Cal Fire. Here, she reflects on the toll the past few years have had on her crews and looks ahead to next fire season. (Interviewed by Chantelle Lee)
Q: Were there any new challenges you had to deal with this year during the Kincade fire?
A: The evacuations - that was a very large amount of folks that were evacuated. That was a challenging piece.
This fire - it was very different from 2017 because of the timing, so we had a little bit more time to evacuate people. ... It was very difficult making that decision, but I strongly believe that we did the right thing to ensure the safety of the public so that our firefighters could do their jobs by protecting their homes.