Video: Time-lapse map shows 911 calls during Calif. wildfire

Sonoma County residents called 911 in record numbers, reporting blocked roads and then increasingly calling with pleas to be rescued


By Julie Johnson
The Press Democrat

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — A vegetation fire broke out just before 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8 in Kenwood. Another grass fire was reported 27 minutes later by a 911 caller near Dutton Avenue and West Third Street in Santa Rosa.

Over the next 28 hours, people in Sonoma County dialed 911 in record numbers, reporting fallen trees blocking roads and vegetation fires, and then increasingly calling with pleas to be rescued.

Dispatchers fielded 759 calls from people reporting fires and hazards, and requesting rescues. (Photo/YouTube)
Dispatchers fielded 759 calls from people reporting fires and hazards, and requesting rescues. (Photo/YouTube)

Some calls lasted hours, like the dispatch call taker staying on the line with a couple taking refuge in a pool as fire and smoke swirled around. With escape routes increasingly blocked by fire or fallen trees, dispatchers pored over maps to help lead people to safety. Most calls were short reports, with resolutions unknown.

A time-lapse heat map of 911 calls taken by Sonoma County’s central dispatch center — the Redwood Empire Dispatch Communications Authority — illustrates how emergencies erupted across Sonoma County in increasing numbers starting about 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8 and continuing through Oct. 9.

A series of massive fires — what eventually became the Tubbs, Nuns, Adobe and Pocket fires — ignited between 9:45 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. in Sonoma County, eventually destroying an estimated 6,800 buildings and killing 23 people.

Dispatchers fielded 759 calls from people reporting fires and hazards, and requesting rescues — an average of about one call every two minutes.

“You can see how quickly this was unfolding across the county,” said Aaron Abbott, Redcom executive director.

Abbott has declined to immediately release dispatch audio or logs for Oct. 8 or 9, saying his staff is working closely with Cal Fire to provide detailed reports for those investigating the fires’ causes. Abbott said they did not have the manpower to produce the documents for the public before providing the information to fire investigators.

In the time-lapse video map, large heat spots build over areas near Highway 128 and Bennett Lane north of Calistoga where the Tubbs fire ignited about 9:45 p.m. The heat marks follow the Tubbs fire’s destructive path to Santa Rosa, its burning front moving at a pace of about 3 mph and spewing embers a half-mile or more ahead, forcing entire neighborhoods to flee. The map also shows the paths of the other fires that would also impact the county.

Dispatchers received 197 calls asking for people to be rescued, 211 reports of structure fires and 251 reports of vegetation fires. In addition, they fielded 100 calls reporting hazardous conditions, many stemming from strong winds that began buffeting the region about 8 p.m.

On a ridgeline just southwest of Keysight Technologies in Fountaingrove, wind speeds reached 24 and 26 mph — with gusts measured between 50 and 68 mph — between 12:30 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. Oct. 9, according to a weather and wind sensor collecting data used by the National Weather Service.

Copyright 2017 The Press Democrat

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