Painful lessons from 2017 wildfires shape preparations for next disaster

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Improving Wildfire Safety

10 ways California and Sonoma County are working to prevent wildfires, stop them sooner and make people safer:

- 911 dispatchers keep watch over the North Bay with a growing network of fire detection cameras.

- More firefighters are on duty during dangerous weather conditions with increased fire risk.

- Cal Fire and local firefighters are reducing underbrush and conducting prescribed burns with new funding.

- New laws require battery backup for garage doors and improvements to 911 system technology.

- Neighbors are banding together to conduct evacuation drills and help each other prepare for an emergency like a wildfire.

- State funding is available for local governments to help landowners create defensible space.

- Cal Fire will soon have firefighting helicopters able to fly at night.

- Sonoma County has adopted more than a half-dozen ways to warn people about urgent emergencies through cellphones, television, radio, hi-lo sheriff’s patrol car sirens and social media.

- Sonoma County has new plans in place to issue warnings and other important communications in Spanish.

- The Federal Communications Commission is requiring cellphone companies to improve the length and geographic accuracy for push notifications for emergency alerts.

_____

For more stories on the anniversary of the October firestorm, go here.

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For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley, go here.

If fire comes to Mill Creek canyon in the hills west of Healdsburg, Mark Menne and his wife have 5-minute and 30-minute evacuation plans, depending on whether they have time to hose off the roof or just get their two old basset hounds in the car and get out.

Smoke from nearly a dozen fires that broke out the night of Oct. 8, 2017, was so thick in this canyon of second- and third-growth redwood forest, Menne’s wife called 911 only to learn the blazes were miles away.

Weeks later, the skies had barely cleared when they and other neighbors posted a sign at the entrance of Mill Creek Road inviting residents to meet and talk about what to do if fire comes to their one-way-in, one-way-out community.

Dozens have banded together in the two years since. They’ve put signs up marking a last-resort emergency evacuation route on logging roads, created plans to warn each other and keep regular contact with local fire officials. Menne spends hours each week clearing underbrush, cutting lower limbs from trees and whacking dry golden grasses down to near dirt.

“The fires were a wake-up call for all of us,” Menne said.

Vast areas of Sonoma County didn’t burn two years ago when fires broke out at night amid a windstorm and grew into infernos, forcing thousands of people to flee for their lives and destroying more than 5,300 homes. All told, the October 2017 fires scorched more than 245,000 acres across Northern California and killed at least 44 people, including 24 people in Sonoma County.

As the slow and costly recovery from the worst disaster in county history enters its third year, a growing movement of individual residents, public safety officials and government leaders are employing painful lessons from 2017 to prepare for the next calamity.

While much work still needs to be done, there have been significant changes — some visible, some not — to protect the public since flames destroyed a sense of security that many took for granted two years ago.

Local and state government agencies have spent billions of public dollars revamping emergency systems to prepare for large-scale disasters and defend communities threatened by them.

“Are we better prepared? Yes. Do we still have work to do? Absolutely,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “Emergency preparedness and fire prevention have become part of our culture here in California. We have to learn from the past.”

In the past two years, Cal Fire has transformed from a seasonal fire agency into a nearly year-round firefighting force. The state has infused Cal Fire’s budget with $240 million to enhance its ability to fight fires and increase the pace and scale of forest health and fire prevention work.

The agency is replacing its Vietnam War-era helicopters with a fleet of twin engine Blackhawk helicopters able to carry 1,000 gallons of retardant. The new copters will allow Cal Fire, for the first time, to launch air attacks at night.

Cal Fire Director Thom Porter said the state is bringing on more firefighting personnel, more engines and providing more funds for healthy forest and chaparral wildland projects — and he said this is part of an ongoing process to increase the state’s capacity to fight fire.

Improving Wildfire Safety

10 ways California and Sonoma County are working to prevent wildfires, stop them sooner and make people safer:

- 911 dispatchers keep watch over the North Bay with a growing network of fire detection cameras.

- More firefighters are on duty during dangerous weather conditions with increased fire risk.

- Cal Fire and local firefighters are reducing underbrush and conducting prescribed burns with new funding.

- New laws require battery backup for garage doors and improvements to 911 system technology.

- Neighbors are banding together to conduct evacuation drills and help each other prepare for an emergency like a wildfire.

- State funding is available for local governments to help landowners create defensible space.

- Cal Fire will soon have firefighting helicopters able to fly at night.

- Sonoma County has adopted more than a half-dozen ways to warn people about urgent emergencies through cellphones, television, radio, hi-lo sheriff’s patrol car sirens and social media.

- Sonoma County has new plans in place to issue warnings and other important communications in Spanish.

- The Federal Communications Commission is requiring cellphone companies to improve the length and geographic accuracy for push notifications for emergency alerts.

_____

For more stories on the anniversary of the October firestorm, go here.

_____

For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley, go here.

“I still need more bodies,” Porter said.

Porter said one of the biggest lessons from 2017 was the need to warn people earlier and evacuate them sooner. This, in turn, allows firefighters to get in and do their work more quickly, a critical element because today’s fires move faster and more erratically because of California’s increasingly dry, volatile climate conditions, Porter said.

“Every Californian needs to know that every acre that can burn will burn someday,” Porter said. “We just don’t know when that will happen. We need to be vigilant and prepared.”

One of the most powerful new tools in place today is a growing network of fire detection cameras that provide 360-degree views from 31 peaks and ridgetops across the North Bay. Sonoma County’s 911 dispatchers stay vigilant day and night with these cameras, which use infrared technology to see in the darkness. Since the first cameras were installed in the fall of 2018, they have already proved indispensable in helping firefighters knock blazes down early.

Dispatchers also have a new script to advise people trapped by fire, guidelines that have been become the gold standard protocol for wildfire emergencies and are now used by emergency dispatchers around the globe.

Sonoma County has dedicated nearly $1 million to put more firefighters and engines out onto the streets during dangerous fire weather. It also has launched a vegetation management program and overhauled its emergency services department, nearly tripling its budget and dedicating $2.5 million to build a better public warning system to alert people to life-threatening emergencies.

Since 2017, the California Legislature has passed a slate of new laws in response to the enormous toll in lives and property losses from wildfires. One broadens potential civil liability for caretakers who desert their senior patients, a law borne out of the shocking abandonment of infirm elderly residents at a Santa Rosa senior care facility when the Tubbs fire burned into the city. Another requires that garage door manufacturers include battery backup so people aren’t trapped when the power is out, which happened to at least five people in October 2017 including a retired doctor who died in her car inside her Fountaingrove home’s garage.

Other laws are designed to revamp the way the state manages its forests across private and public lands, including one that created a $1 billion funding stream dispensed by Cal Fire to local agencies for forest thinning, controlled burns and other fire prevention programs over five years.

Local officials say they have totally changed the way they view government’s role as chief communicator in times of emergency, vowing to warn people sooner and evacuate communities faster.

But is it enough? Are we any more safe than the Sunday night in 2017 when fires ignited simultaneously while much of the region was asleep?

“Nobody gives you credit for the fire that didn’t happen,” Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said. “But the key for us has to be remaining vigilant.”

Gore is emphatic the county would have a stronger response to a major fire today than it did in 2017 — but he says the entire state needs to keep the momentum and rethink what it means to be resilient in an era of worsening natural disasters.

Gore believes the biggest threat is complacency. Since he was elected in 2014, Sonoma County has experienced some of its driest and wettest years on record, plus historic flooding in Guerneville and the devastation of losing more than 5,300 homes to wildfire.

“The natural landscape is still ripe to burn,” said Gore, who represents a heavily wooded and mountainous northern section of the county. “If anybody in Sonoma questions that, just look over the hill into Lake County where you had four or five years in a row where big sections of the county burned.”

Geyserville Fire Chief Marshall Turbeville, who is also a battalion chief with Cal Fire, helped fight many of those fires in Lake County and took part in the stand local firefighters made when the 2015 Valley fire burned over the Geysers, threatening northern Sonoma County.

He has helped reshape the Geyserville Fire Protection District’s mission protecting more than 200 square miles in northern Sonoma County to include helping clear defensible space around homes and along rural private roads. On any given day, a crew from Geyserville fire might be out with a chipper to help residents with piles of cleared brush and tree limbs get rid of the debris or they may be clearing vegetation along private roadways, supported by a Cal Fire grant.

He also has developed specific scenarios for where fires are likely to break out in his district, drawing up multiple plans for how to approach and attack fires in different locations using knowledge of the roads, ridges and dozer lines from the 2017 Pocket fire and other fires.

“I’ve always felt that what we do now in prevention and preparedness — that’s more important,” Turbeville said. “I try to make every community meeting I can because one minute of prevention can save somebody’s life.”

In the past two months alone, communities across the county have gathered during dozens of events focused on helping prepare for disasters. Residents met at local firehouses from Healdsburg to Kenwood to discuss the impacts of large-scale power shutdowns when high winds and hot temperatures raise the risk of fire.

Before the fires, it would be hard to imagine an event focused on evacuation routes, food storage, battery life and other essential preparations for fires, earthquakes and other disasters might draw nearly 5,000 people to spend a Sunday afternoon at the Sonoma County fairgrounds. But thousands came to the Sept. 8 event, the county’s first Sonoma Ready Day.

Residents in the Cavedale-Trinity community staged an evacuation drill in late August— the first of its kind in the county — to help residents and local responders practice for the next wildfire, test alert systems and overall readiness.

On Sept. 5, the county hosted its second test of the federal government’s Wireless Emergency Alert program and three other public warning platforms. It was a chance for the county to test a new agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to broadcast information to special weather radios designed to activate during emergencies.

The run-up to last week’s power shutdowns to prevent wildfires from sparking proved to be a drill of sorts for thousands across the region, forcing them to think about how they would be affected by the loss of electricity. PG&E warned it might cut power to 34,000  customers in Sonoma County after weather forecasts showed it could be both windy and hot, dangerous conditions ripe for powerline-sparked fires. The winds didn’t materialize as predicted, and the utility ended up cutting power to about 1,400  customers in parts of Sonoma and Napa counties, though there were more widespread shut-offs in the Sierra foothills.

Also this month, local government officials teamed up with Facebook to host a beach picnic in Guerneville to promote a new method of distributing emergency information through the social media platform, which played a central role in helping people communicate during the 2017 fires and again this year when the lower Russian River flooded neighborhoods along its shores.

Paul Lowenthal, Santa Rosa’s assistant fire marshal, now talks about preparedness with neighborhood groups and local organizations frequently, often several days a week since the fires. The city has strategized to protect critical public assets and infrastructure, is preparing a large-scale evacuation plan for Santa Rosa and is dedicating more staff time to educate the public about how to protect themselves and their neighbors during a variety of emergencies, from wildfires to earthquakes.

“It’s no longer a seasonal outreach — it’s consistent concerns from the community regarding emergency preparedness, whether it’s vegetation management, alerts and warnings, evacuations,” Lowenthal said. “People are aware of the new normal now.”

Residents of Oakmont created a group, Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies, focused on individual and neighborhood responsibility. The idea has been replicated in communities across the county, such as Fitch Mountain in Healdsburg, Cavedale-Trinity and Mill Creek.

They’ve gone door to door, turning strangers into friends, sharing phone numbers and making plans for how to alert each other to trouble. They’ve plotted escape routes through the dark from their hillside homes down to gravel beaches on the Russian River.

Neighbors have brought in companies to test air sirens to hear firsthand how the outdoor alarms fare in Sonoma County’s hilly terrain versus the Midwestern plains.

They’ve purchased generators, weather radios, flashlights and stores of water. They have go-bags ready and lists of neighbors, especially those who might need help when disaster strikes.

Mill Creek residents have already practiced escaping west if the road is blocked, piling into pickups and learning which logging roads lead to safety over the rugged ridges to Sweetwater Springs Road. In two weeks, they’ll undertake another drill, this one guided by the county, to test how emergency warnings reach the area and an organized evacuation out the main road.

Menne said he went from hardly knowing who lived in the surrounding hills to feeling part of an increasingly tight-knit community.

“Once you get to know people, you start looking out for them,” Menne said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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