PD Editorial: A year after Sonoma County’s firestorm

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Read all of the PD's fire anniversary coverage here

For anyone who lived in Sonoma County a year ago, Oct. 8 and Oct. 9 will be the anniversary few of us anticipated — and none of us wanted.

On that warm, windy night and into the next morning, flames incinerated entire neighborhoods as people ran for their lives, leaving their possessions, sometimes even their shoes, behind.

The fires, too big and too numerous to fight in those chaotic early hours, destroyed more than 5,000 homes in Sonoma County alone. The worst fire, the Tubbs fire, would have burned even farther into Santa Rosa if the wind hadn’t shifted as dawn approached on Oct. 9.

This was California’s worst disaster since the Great Earthquake of 1906.

And, like the great quake, the fires exposed vulnerabilities that demand attention before memories have time to fade.

With dozens of wildfires erupting across Northern California, fire departments couldn’t keep up with the calls for help — from desperate residents whose homes were burning or from partners in California’s mutual-aid firefighting network.

At the county’s emergency operations center, officials couldn’t get the big picture. They didn’t know how many fires were burning, or where. Emergency dispatchers didn’t have up-to-date information for 911 callers, and emergency alert systems — if they were used at all — proved inadequate.

Utility crews were overwhelmed by downed lines, and power outages made it difficult for some people, especially the elderly, to open their garage doors.

As the flames died down — it was weeks before the last of the fires was extinguished — many who lost their homes discovered that they were underinsured or lacked detailed inventories needed to collect on their policies.

Some whose homes were spared were told they still couldn’t return. Forty-four coaches stand empty in the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa, which closed because of damage to utility lines and water supplies.

And, as our newsroom colleagues are detailing in a series of anniversary reports, the community has undergone profound changes, including the loss of perhaps 7,000 residents who decided, or were forced by circumstances, to start over somewhere else.

“It felt like the last 30 years of my life were incinerated,” said Kristy Militello, a Santa Rosa native who moved with her family to San Diego after their home burned. “It just was erased off the map.”

There are, however, signs of renewal. In Coffey Park, where 1,321 homes burned, nearly six in 10 property owners are committed to rebuilding. Twenty-one homes had been completed by late September, with 520 under construction and 101 ready to break ground.

The pace has been slower in Fountaingrove, another hard-hit neighborhood, but 165 homes are under construction, 540 more have been permitted or have applications under review, and water advisories may soon be lifted.

The eerie quiet that followed the fires has given way to familiar routines — work and school, the harvest, election season and, this weekend, the 10th annual GranFondo cycling tour.

Meanwhile, some of our vulnerabilities are getting attention.

Sonoma County officials are revising emergency protocols. In Sacramento, lawmakers committed $1 billion for vegetation and brush management, a fire prevention necessity as detailed in today’s Forum section by Ruthie Snyder, a community editorial board member.

This year’s state budget includes money to preposition crews and equipment when fire danger is high, newly placed cameras serve as lookouts, and PG&E is prepared to cut off electricity when power lines pose a fire risk.

Recent tests of cellphone alert systems produced mixed results. We encourage everyone to sign up for SoCo Alert and/or Nixle, the opt-in systems used by local emergency agencies.

Like many of our readers, we think old-fashioned air-raid sirens may be more reliable when lives are at stake.

Yet on this anniversary, our thoughts turn first to those who lost family members and those who lost homes and a lifetime of memories. We again thank the first responders, and we salute a supportive community determined to rebuild.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

Read all of the PD's fire anniversary coverage here

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