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When Jill Gordon saw on television that high winds were whipping through her Brush Creek community in Santa Rosa, stoking fires in Fountaingrove and nearby areas early Oct. 9, she knew it was time to put her neighborhood disaster response network to its first-ever test.

“I looked outside and there was just a glow to the north of us,” said the 68-year-old vice president of the Brush Creek Villas Association. “It was the scariest thing in my whole life, not knowing where the sparks were going.”

She started making warning calls about 1:30 a.m., using a list of contacts compiled as part of the Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies program she spearheaded in her neighborhood five years ago. She told neighbors she’d seen a SoCoAlert notice that nearby communities were evacuating to the Finley Community Center, and asked them to pass the message along.

Then she grabbed a “go bag” she’d packed with essentials including a flashlight, food, clothes, a solar cell phone charger and hopped in her gold Subaru Forester. After picking up a neighbor, she honked her horn as she drove out to alert more residents as she made her way to the evacuation center.

The grass-roots warning group is exactly the kind of community preparedness effort that authorities encourage and which they see emerging in greater numbers now eight months since October’s deadly fires.

The disaster served as a sobering wake-up about the need for residents to make a plan to look out for themselves and one another when first responders may be overwhelmed or unavailable.

“Upwards of 100,000 people evacuated at the peak of the incident, and when you have that many people evacuated in that short period of time, there’s not enough first responders in Santa Rosa or Sonoma County to deal with that level of an emergency,” said Santa Rosa’s Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal. “It was the community that came together, all acting as first responders. That’s the intention.”

Organized and informal neighborhood groups have long existed for purposes such as preserving open space or looking out for crime. Gordon worked with the Santa Rosa Fire Department to set up the program in her neighborhood because of earthquake concerns fueled by the nearby Rodgers Creek Fault. Though they held regular safety drills, the fires were the first time the program was put into action in her 159-home neighborhood.

The COPE initiative adopted by the Santa Rosa Fire Department is aimed to prepare communities to respond to disaster and sustain themselves for at least 72 hours, Lowenthal said. That includes developing and practicing response plans, designating block captains to check on neighbors, setting a meeting place for evacuations and maintaining emergency supply kits.

“It became obvious to us that it’s critical to organize like that, and probably even more important when you aren’t evacuating — like in the case of an earthquake,” said Gordon, whose neighborhood escaped major damage in the fires.

Sue Hattendorf said she created the first-of-its kind COPE program in 2004 in her Oakmont neighborhood after she experienced the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Southern California. Santa Rosa adopted the program in 2006.

COPE neighborhoods are encouraged to create groups of as many as 20 homes, with established leaders. A census is performed to document residents’ contact information, special needs or health concerns, and useful equipment, like chainsaws or generators. Residents record other information, such as location of gas, water and electric shut-off valves, and how to manually open their garage door.

Lowenthal and other fire department employees also make themselves available to participating neighborhoods to speak about preparedness and best practices.

The COPE groups function independently, making it difficult to say exactly how many exist in Sonoma County. The Sea Ranch and Russian River areas both are enlisted, according to, county spokeswoman Briana Khan said. A similar program exists in the city of Sonoma.

Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, who lost her Oakmont home in the fires, was part of her local COPE program. Though she was out of town when the fires erupted, she said leaders canvassed her neighborhood to alert residents.

“I’ve been a huge supporter of COPE programs, and any effort for neighborhoods and communities to prepare themselves,” she said.

Christopher Godley, Sonoma County’s interim emergency services manager, said the county has facilitated a community preparedness program since the 1990s, but it wasn’t clear when it adopted the COPE program. Sonoma County supervisors are expected today to approve funding for a position aimed at community engagement and disaster preparedness, he said. As soon as September, that position could be filled with someone who will interface with residents and seek to bolster participation in preparedness programs, such as COPE, he said.

Many residents say they didn’t receive official alerts about October’s fires, and the county has vowed to provide better and earlier warnings. But more residents also should be ready to assist one another, he said.

“We want to make sure (emergency preparedness) is part of the culture here in Sonoma County,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or hannah.beausang@pressdemocrat.com.

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