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In hills above Sonoma Valley, a first-of-its kind wildfire drill tests residents, alert systems

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Sitting at a table in her living room Saturday morning, Lisa Warner listened carefully to the automated evacuation order on her cellphone, while her husband, Brad, heard the same message from their home office, about one second delayed.

The alert came at about 8:17 a.m. When it was over, Warner went into the bedroom of their Trinity Road home high atop the Mayacamas Mountains, put on her shoes and readied the “go bags” sitting on the bed.

The evacuation was only a drill, a rehearsal aimed at testing alert systems and wildfire preparedness among residents of the Cavedale-Trinity community just east of Glen Ellen in Sonoma Valley.

There was no fire, but Warner’s heart started racing anyway.

“I’m stressed. It triggers those feelings, even though there’s nothing to be afraid of,” she said as she pulled leather jackets from the closet.

“To withstand flames better outside,” she said.

“You see, I’m acting like I have time. What if we had no time?”

The Saturday morning drill was the first of its kind in the county for wildfire. Organized by local residents and county emergency officials, it was meant to assess the performance of emergency alerts, disaster preparedness and evacuation routes in the event of a real inferno.

The thickly wooded area of Cavedale and Trinity roads is among the county’s communities most at risk for wildfire, said Chris Godley, director of the county’s emergency management division.

In 2017, the Nuns fire destroyed about a third of the homes in the area, said Warner, co-chairwoman of the Mayacamas Fire Safe Council, formed in the aftermath of fires two years ago.

The Warners were among a couple dozen people who had registered for the drill in advance.

“What’s good about the evacuation drill is that the county is realizing that what looks good on paper may not work so well in real life,” Warner said, standing on the deck of her home before the drill.

Residents were told only that the alert would go out sometime after 8 a.m. When it did, the couple’s cellphones started ringing.

Meanwhile, Sonoma County sheriff’s patrol vehicles stationed near Highway 12 sounded off their newly installed “hi-low” sirens, meant to alert people in disaster situations. Sirens blaring, the sheriff’s vehicles made their way up Trinity and Cavedale roads from Highway 12.

After she donned her shoes, Warner brought in several cushions from patio furniture on the deck. Those cushions, she said, pose a danger because they could catch fire and help ignite the deck and roof.

The Nuns fire in 2017 burned all around their home, a 1,300-square-foot log-kit cabin built in 1970. It came up to one side of the house, destroying several trees and blistering the paint on the home’s east wall.

When the couple finally returned days later, they saw water hoses lying around the grounds. A Marin County fire crew helped save the home, and the Warners have since heard them recount their stories.

During the drill on Saturday, it took the couple about 10 minutes to pack their truck with their go-bags, their jackets and two chainsaws for cutting through any fallen trees or branches on the road.

“The little one is mine,” Lisa Warner said.

The evacuation route took them down Trinity Road, toward Glen Ellen. At Cavedale Road, they turned left and drove the narrow, winding roadway. The fire safety council and emergency management officials agreed to keep Trinity Road clear for use by fire and emergency crews.

Local residents participating in the evacuation met at Hanna Boys Center on Arnold Drive. The trip from the Warner residence on Trinity Road to the evacuation center took about 30 minutes.

Jennifer O’Mahony, a member of the fire safety council who lives on Cavedale Road, said she was thankful for the evacuation drill. Her house was spared two years ago, though she lost outbuildings and her well and septic system.

She said she was among the residents who were able to hear the hi-low siren, which was inaudible from the Warners’ home.

“I like that I heard it because now I know what it sounds like,” said O’Mahony.

Godley said emergency managers would gather such feedback to evaluate the drill and the measures it was meant to test. And more drills are in the works, he said. The next one, set for September, is being organized with residents from the Fitch Mountain area near Healdsburg.

“Then we’re going to west county, Occidental, Camp Meeker,” Godley said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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