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A live-stream of the meeting can be found here

Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin wept Tuesday as she laid bare her lingering concerns about the county’s failure to warn many people in the path of the deadly October wildfires, telling her colleagues and community members she was deeply troubled by inadequate efforts to alert the public of the catastrophe.

“All my life I placed my faith in the professionals — you guys rock,” Gorin said after a morning presentation from the top county emergency official during the Board of Supervisors’ daylong study of their disaster response system. “And to tell you that I am horribly disappointed is an understatement.”

Her voice trembling from the start, Gorin, who lost her Oakmont home in the fires, told of the “horror stories” recounted to her over the past four months by friends and constituents in Sonoma and Bennett valleys, where two people were killed and more than 650 homes were destroyed in the three-week inferno.

“My heart bleeds every time,” she said, linking the accounts she’d heard of that first night directly to the county’s much-criticized failure to send more widespread emergency alerts in the initial firestorm. “I hug them and listen to them. Not one person received an alert. What the hell are we doing here?”

Gorin’s comments marked perhaps the strongest and most personal rebuke from a local politician regarding the emergency alert system officials used to warn the public about the fast-moving wildfires that destroyed some 5,300 homes and killed 24 people in the county. They reflected an extraordinary, highly anticipated moment as the Board of Supervisors held a seven-hour public workshop to examine flaws in the county’s emergency response and identify ways to improve for future disasters.

Each supervisor voiced their own strong critique or call for action, though none more pointed than Gorin, who suggested the county’s failure on wireless alerts cost people their lives.

The shortcoming on alerts continues to draw intense criticism from anguished residents, many of whom were forced to flee in the middle of the night with little or no warning.

“I’m crushed that alert did not go out,” said Rincon Valley resident Jessica Tunis, whose mother, Linda Tunis, 69, died at the Journey’s End mobile home park.

“She called me from her burning house. I still have nightmares. No one should ever have to go through that again.”

Tunis told supervisors she wanted to know whether Amber Alert-style messages would be sent in future emergencies, saying she was wondering if residents would “have to save ourselves again.”

County officials have said they would send such alerts in future disasters. County Administrator Sheryl Bratton and Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore said last week they were not aware of evidence showing the any of the fire deaths were linked to the failure to receive a wireless alert.

Jessica Tunis, 49, said she isn’t sure whether such measures would have saved her mother. Still, she said she wished they were used.

“I think it would have given her more of a chance to get out of her house sooner,” Tunis said an interview.

Tuesday’s meeting gave supervisors a broad platform to weigh in critically on other aspects of the county’s emergency response. The board’s two senior members — Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt — said county supervisors needed to be more directly involved in the emergency response. Zane faulted county administrative leaders for sidelining elected officials in such cases, saying supervisors were viewed as “a nuisance” at the county’s emergency operations center.

“We’re the ones that have to stand before people,” Zane said. “I can’t tell you how frustrated I am that I’ve had to push against this door for so long and here we are. That needs to change radically.”

Rabbitt called for changes in the way the county runs its emergency operations center, describing it as having an ineffective “bunker mentality.”

“It needs to be blown up and fixed,” Rabbitt said of the county’s emergency operations system. “The idea that we’re not even allowed in the door is ridiculous to say the least.”

Jim Colangelo, the county’s interim fire and emergency services director who presented to the board Tuesday, was receptive to the concerns. He said in an interview he was “absolutely” supportive of giving supervisors a greater role during future emergencies.

“They’ve got a unique experience and ability to communicate with their constituents,” Colangelo said. “One of the things we struggled with early on was getting messages out, and I think we need to utilize the supervisors more on that.”

Zane also took more pointed aim at the county’s failure to use the Wireless Emergency Alerts system to warn the public about the firestorm.

Christopher Helgren, the former emergency manager who was reassigned to a different job earlier this month, has said he chose long before the fires — in 2016 — not to use that system during local disasters. A state review faulted that decision this week, saying it was based on an outdated understanding of the technology.

Bratton, the county administrator, told The Press Democrat last week she didn’t know who had been told of that decision and hadn’t looked into the matter.

“I don’t understand how these decisions were made in terms of what to use and what not to use and where the accountability is,” Zane said. “It should go up the chain of command.”

Zane also criticized the fact that both Helgren and emergency coordinator Zachary Hamill were at an out-of-town conference when the firestorm erupted, two days after the National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for extreme fire risk over the weekend.

She called their absence “one of the worst tragedies” of the county’s initial response and floated a proposal to require that “essential personnel” not be allowed to leave when red-flag warnings are in place.

The proposal earned an endorsement from Gore, but supervisors took no formal action. County staff members plan to develop a countywide warning program, with input from the public, emergency responders, city officials and law enforcement.

It would be formally adopted by supervisors at a later date.

“We should treat red-flag warnings the way we treat tornado warnings, the way we treat tsunami warnings,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said. “We can’t be asleep at the wheel anymore.”

And that means doing a better job communicating with the public, Hopkins said.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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