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Five years after the fire

Emergency response boosted block by block and through governmental and private agencies
Five years after the fire
A new Type 6 fire truck at the Glen Ellen Fire Station.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Tracy Salcedo

On a sunny September evening, members of all three fire safety “pods” on London Ranch Road gathered on a neighbor’s patio overlooking the fire-scarred Mayacamas. They checked the neighborhood contact list to make sure their information was current, discussed the best ways to make sure the medications in their go-bags are up to date, and talked about evacuation routes, evacuation zones, and evacuation protocols. They made plans to test their walkie-talkies, which they will use to communicate from the bottom of the road to the top in the next emergency.

On another evening, other neighbors gathered around a map spread across two tables in the pool room of the Jack London Saloon. They sipped iced tea and identified what they needed to complete a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) under the auspices of Fire Safe Sonoma. If the CWPP effort is successful, Glen Ellen residents and local fire professionals will be able to collaboratively secure grants for home hardening, fuels management, and other programs to increase wildfire resilience throughout the sprawling Glen Ellen zip code.

These efforts are among many making up a sea change in the landscape of emergency preparedness since wind-driven wildfires devastated entire communities in Sonoma County in October 2017. Kenwood and Glen Ellen were hard hit in those firestorms, and anyone who lived through them is well aware of how different life in the north Sonoma Valley is five years later.

“The biggest takeaway we all took from 2017 was that we had to double-down,” said Chris Godley, director of Sonoma County Emergency Management. “And all our efforts have paid off. We’ve done really well.”

Much of that doubling-down has been at the neighborhood level, with the formation of such community- based efforts as CWPPs, Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies (COPEs), Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), and others. Sonoma Citizens Organized and Prepared for Emergencies (SCOPE), established immediately after the 2017 fires, has provided preparedness training to community groups and organizations in both English and Spanish. More than 70 emergency-focused community groups now exist within the county, compared to three before the 2017 fire siege, said Godley.

Other changes instituted by local, state, and government agencies to respond to the threat of wildfire — and earthquakes, flash floods, or other natural or human-caused disasters — include improved alert and warning systems, expanded fuels management programs, and zone-based evacuation protocols.

“What strikes me as most important is that the efforts that have been taken are focused in many areas that we identified as needing improvement following the 2017 fires,” said Sonoma Valley Fire District Chief Steve Akre via email. “We have not simply addressed one area of need or concern. As a resident, the totality of the improvements is very reassuring, and I would point to the improvements in [alert and warning systems] as one that means most to my family.”

Staff and stuff

Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors “really leaned into [creating] a more developed and considered approach” to responding to emergencies after the 2017 fires, according to Godley. This has resulted in increased staffing and funding for the Emergency Management department Godley heads, which has grown from 3.5 fulltime staff to 13, with a budget of $2.5 million. Other county agencies have also taken on emergency response roles, such as the Human Services Department, which handles mass care and shelter, deploying equipment and staff for emergency shelters quickly and effectively.

Within Sonoma Valley, Akre pointed to reestablishment of an administrative battalion chief position with a focus on emergency management and planning, as well as increased daily staffing on fire district engines from two to three professional firefighters. In terms of equipment, three new Type 6 fire engines, which Akre described as “very maneuverable and easy to drive,” have been added to the fleet, as well as a new Type 3 wildland engine and two replacement Type 1 (all-purpose) engines in Glen Ellen and Agua Caliente. The department can also “add 10-15 additional engines during Red Flag events.”

Alert and organized

One of the biggest concerns expressed after the 2017 fires was the lack of warning residents had of the fast-moving disaster. Stories of haphazard phone calls and heroic door-to-door rescues by firefighters and public safety officers were the norm, not the exception. The advent of the SoCoAlert and Nixle systems, and the independent Watch Duty and PulsePoint apps, have greatly improved how residents find out about dangerous situations and receive evacuation warnings and evacuation orders.

The county also took advantage of state legislation that opened access to data from utility companies, such as PG& E, and enabled a tenfold increase in “points of contact” for the SoCo Alert system, from 50,000 to 500,000. “It’s given us an extremely rich source of data to draw on” to keep people informed and safe, Godley said.

Within Sonoma Valley specifically, the SVFD “established a City Emergency Operations Center (EOC) working group that has made big improvements to training, equipment, and operations of the EOC and staff capabilities,” Akre said. He also pointed to success “in efforts to have one EOC for the entire Valley area and improved coordination and communications with the County EOC.”

In terms of dispatch, “we became the first dispatch center in the county to implement (and assist with design) of a Wildfire Priority Dispatch Protocol System,” Akre said. “We used the experiences of dispatch during the Tubbs Fire, in particular, to help develop this valuable and life-saving system.”

Other new/improved tools for warnings and alerts include National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radios, and the installation of hi-lo sirens on local law enforcement vehicles, used exclusively to alert residents in emergencies.

Know your zone

The implementation of evacuation zones has been another significant factor in improving emergency preparedness and response.

In 2017, Godley explained, fire and other officials were basically creating zones “on the fly.” In the aftermath of the firestorms officials looked south, to San Diego, for guidance on what a zone system should, or could, look like. While San Diego’s system offered lessons, the grid layout of its zones didn’t apply to Sonoma County.

Instead, officials configured zones that made sense in terms of local communities, geography, and type of hazard (flood, fire), and then “ground-truthed” the results, so the zones not only work for evacuees, but also help chiefs make decisions, Godley explained.

Evacuating by zone has evolved as other systems have evolved, such as the public safety power shutoffs implemented by PG& E in an attempt to keep their equipment from sparking wildfires. In the 2019 Kincade Fire, for instance, evacuations were ordered clear to the coast, in part because PG& E was threatening power cutoffs. With no power, people might not get a subsequent evacuation order, Godley pointed out. But as PG& E has honed its practices, communications systems have improved, and citizens have become more educated, more orderly and targeted evacuation scenarios are possible.

“Now you know your zone,” Godley said. “If you’re in zone 6-echo-2, you can listen for that name.” In addition, evacuation messages have been pre-recorded in English and in Spanish, reducing time to get the orders issued and improving accuracy. “We are trying to empower people so they know more about what’s happening in an emergency.” To find your evacuation zone, visit the “Get Ready” page at socoemergency.org.

Fuels management

The sound of the weed-whacker is ubiquitous throughout Sonoma Valley as fire season approaches. Since 2017, the diligence of property owners and managers in clearing combustibles from around their homes has been transformative.

Akre noted the SVFD has been “actively conducting Vegetation Management Inspections (VMI) in the areas of Glen Ellen and the Springs since 2018.” The district was first to partner with Sonoma County to pilot the program, which involves educating, inspecting, and enforcing defensible space requirements in accordance with county ordinance. “On average, we inspect 250 to 300 properties each year,” the chief said. CAL FIRE also inspects properties in the “state responsibility area” within the district.

Vegetation management on public lands has become more organized and targeted since 2017 as well, as agencies such as the Sonoma Land Trust, the Sonoma Ecology Center, and the Sonoma Valley Wildlands Collaborative employ prescribed burns and other techniques to reduce the threat of out-of-control wildland fires. The Sonoma Valley Wildlands Collaborative, which includes the land trust, county parks and open space agencies, CAL FIRE and California State Parks, and Audubon Canyon Ranch, came together in the wake of the fires specifically to “develop a long-term strategy on a landscape scale … to protect the communities of the Sonoma Valley in the event of future wildfires,” according to the Collaborative website.

Most recently, CAL FIRE and Sonoma County announced the formation of the Hood Mountain Fire Center, located on the county’s Los Guilicos campus at the base of Hood Mountain. The fire center hosts a hand crew that is both on call for wildfire suppression as well as to perform “the critical prefire fuels modification work that is needed to address the wildfire risk we face,” said CAL FIRE’s Sonoma- Lake-Napa Unit Chief Mike Marcucci.

Looking forward

Rebuilding continues throughout the county in the wake of the 2017 fires. “Across the unincorporated areas of the county, 64.9% of parcels with destroyed structures from the 2017 fires have been rebuilt, with an additional 25% in construction,” First District Supervisor Susan Gorin wrote in her Sept. 20 e-letter to constituents. “The City of Santa Rosa has also made tremendous progress in rebuilding from 2017, with 1,947 parcels rebuilt and an additional 270 currently in construction.”

Akre hopes the district will be able to pass a new version of half-cent sales tax known as Measure G, which barely missed passing when it was on the ballot in 2020. The tax “would have brought $50 million annually to provide for additional firefighters (paramedics), stations, prevention, and vegetation management programs,” he explained. “We are keeping this effort alive though and will be ready to put another measure forward to the voters [when conditions are favorable for its passage], likely 2024.”

Looking ahead, Godley said the county expects to receive grant dollars to build Community Emergency Resilience Centers (CERCs; steel buildings to house emergency resources) and plans to install a CERC at the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Building near downtown Sonoma.

Additionally, America Rescue Plan Act funding will be used to capture, institutionalize, and make sustainable lessons learned about recovery at the community level, essentially helping answer the question, “How do we come back from disasters?” Godley said.

The county is also looking at the existential question of how climate change will change the preparedness scene over the long term. Catastrophic drought is among the threats officials want to examine and do “scenario planning” for. A “master emergency operations plan” is in the works to delineate policies in a “public-facing” manner, according to Godley, and will address not only fire, but “put a lens on the unique challenges” presented by flooding, public safety power shutoffs, earthquakes, and other disasters.

To learn more about county services for emergency preparedness and recovery, visit https://www.sonomavalleyfire.org. To learn more about the SVFD, visit www.sonomavalleyfire.org.

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