911 calls released for Calif. wildfires
More than a thousand 911 calls were handled during the first six hours of the deadly fires that broke out across Sonoma County
By Julie Johnson, Nick Rahaim, Randi Rossmann and Christi Warren
The Press Democrat
SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. —The 911 dispatcher asked the frantic woman on the other end of the phone call if she was safe. The answer was immediate: “No.”
Fire was burning all around the Santa Rosa couple’s Riebli Road neighborhood on the night of Oct. 8, cutting off their escape. They jumped into a neighbor’s pool — “is that a good thing to do?” the woman asked the dispatcher during the call, which started at 12:42 a.m. Oct. 9. Doubtful the fire that started near Calistoga had already reached the rural neighborhood outside Santa Rosa city limits, the dispatcher double-checked: “Are there flames there?”
“Yes, they’re right in front of me!” the panicked woman said.
The harrowing scene was one of the more than a thousand 911 calls handled during the first six hours of the deadly fires that broke out across the county Oct. 8, ultimately burning 137 square miles and killing 24 people.
Sonoma County released the audio files in response to a public records request by The Press Democrat and other news outlets for audio of all 911 calls fielded by dispatchers during the first 24 hours of the disaster.
The six hours of files Tuesday were the first batch released, and officials said they will release additional audio files as they become available.
The calls start at 7:25 p.m. Oct. 8 and end at 1:37 a.m. Oct. 9 when fire was burning into Fountaingrove but had not yet jumped Highway 101 to Coffey Park — which it would do by about 2 a.m. Those two Santa Rosa neighborhoods lost the most homes.
The calls, redacted to conceal names and specific addresses, show how fires broke out simultaneously across the county, some small and others growing into massive out-of-control infernos, forcing people from the Sonoma Valley to Santa Rosa to Geyserville to flee for their lives in the middle of the night.
“We are completely inundated...” a dispatcher said to a Calistoga resident calling from out of town at 1:32 a.m. because he was worried about his home. “We have over 20 working fires right now in the county. Because of the winds and everything, we are having a firestorm.”
Reports of arcing PG&E power lines in Kenwood, a blown transformer causing a house fire in Larkfield and downed wires throughout Sonoma County, one sparking flames outside Geyserville, marked the first hours of the night. At 9:48 p.m. a woman near Geyserville reported trees on fire close to her house. With children’s voice in the background, the woman said she thought a wire broke off in the wind igniting the fire.
“Don’t worry about any belongings, don’t worry about any of your stuff. Get your family, get out of there, OK?” the dispatcher said to the woman, marking the first call of the night where a resident was told to evacuate. “Please hurry up because it’s really close,” the woman responded.
But firefighters throughout the county were already overwhelmed.
People called to report roads blocked by trees and power lines, an orange glow in the sky and the strong stench of smoke that made the fires seem close to people in Petaluma.
They also called for help.
At 11:08 p.m. a woman said she, her children and ailing father were trapped on Nuns Canyon Road with flames burning between them and Highway 12.
“I was trying to vacate because of the flames right next to our house,” the woman told a dispatcher. “I can’t leave because of the flames. … I’m just fearing for my family.”
Sympathetic but swamped, the dispatcher had to put the woman briefly on hold because of stacked up calls, and then told her if the situation became more threatening to call back for help.
Overloaded dispatchers put out a plea for help about 11:10 p.m. to handle the avalanche of calls.
“Can you find anybody that could come in and help us? Anybody, anybody, anybody. All hands on deck,” one dispatcher told another agency official.
About 11:15 p.m., a man called to ask about fire in Coffey Park, reporting thick smoke.
“If you don’t see flames or actual fire I’m going to have to let you go,” said the dispatcher.
About the same time, a furious and terrified woman called about fire on Adobe Canyon Road near Kenwood. “Where is everybody?” she asked. “There’s fire in our backyard and there’s no f------ fire engines here.”
Six minutes after midnight, Windsor Fire Chief Jack Piccinini put on a dispatcher’s headset for an urgent call to Cal Fire, trying to get a sense of what additional firefighting resources were heading to the fires. Plenty, the Cal Fire dispatcher told him.
“OK, and are any of them coming to Sonoma County?” Piccinini asked.
No, she said, they were going to Napa.
Piccinini let out an exasperated sigh, and in the background a Redcom dispatcher gasped, “Oh my god.”
“So, if possible, we’d like to get a bunch into Sonoma County. Now,” Piccinini said.
The Cal Fire dispatcher replied that someone would call.
The firefight wouldn’t begin in earnest for hours. It was rescue and evacuate that night.
A terrified woman told dispatchers she was trapped by fire at 12:49 a.m. near the home she was renting in an area near Mark West Creek.
“I’m driving with embers over the road. I’m driving through fire. I can’t do anything,” and she starts to cough. She cries as the dispatcher tried to coach her out of the area.
“Oh my god,” the woman said.
“Are you there?” the dispatcher asked.
There was no reply.
Three minutes later, Cal Fire officials called the dispatch center to order evacuations in that area — “Riebli needs to get out. Fire is right there.”
The fires were spreading and igniting at a rate that far outpaced communication between those on the ground and dispatchers fielding call after call from people wanting to know if they should leave.
Calling from the Shiloh Ridge Road area north of Shiloh Ranch Regional Park, a resident was told at 1:23 a.m. there were no evacuations and “you are probably safe.”
That changed within 10 minutes when a dispatcher told another Shiloh Ridge Road resident to “get all of your people and your pets in your vehicle, and I want you to go ahead and evacuate, OK?”
The calls are a snapshot of how the various fires spread that fateful night.
The Tubbs fire ignited north of Calistoga about 9:45 p.m. Oct. 8 and quickly spread, burning a westward path into Santa Rosa at a remarkable pace of about 12 miles in just four hours. It would become the most destructive wildfire in state history, burning nearly 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa.
Near Glen Ellen in Nuns Canyon, a fire ignited about 10 p.m. Oct. 8 and over the next several days joined with several other fires, burning through Kenwood, Trione-Annadel State Park, Bennett Valley and Napa County. Nearby, the Pressley fire burned about 791 acres along Crane Ranch Road east of Rohnert Park.
Before dawn the next day, around 3:30 a.m. Oct. 9, fire began burning in remote hilly terrain east of Geyserville — later dubbed the Pocket fire.
The fires, which destroyed 5,130 homes, would continue burning for nearly a month before finally being declared contained Oct. 31.
Copyright 2017 The Press Democrat