Officials: Calif. county 'grossly underprepared' for scale of October wildfires

Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore said officials did not issue coordinated, widespread warnings to cellphones that could have reached many more

By J.D. Morris
The Press Democrat

SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. — People were put in imminent peril in Sonoma County during the early hours of last year’s firestorm because county officials did not issue more coordinated, widespread warnings, having discounted wireless alerts to cellphones that could have reached many more of those in the path of the inferno, Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore said Thursday.

Gore is the highest-ranking county official to state publicly that the decision by emergency management staff to rule out Amber Alert-style warnings — a step taken about a year before the fires but apparently not communicated to county leadership — led to poor communication with the community, including haphazard messaging from multiple agencies on different platforms the night of Oct. 8 and early Oct. 9.

Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore said officials did not issue coordinated, widespread warnings to cellphones that could have reached many more. (Photo/AP)
Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore said officials did not issue coordinated, widespread warnings to cellphones that could have reached many more. (Photo/AP)

Gore was asked in a two-hour interview with The Press Democrat’s editorial board if that shortfall on warnings endangered lives during the firestorm.

“Absolutely,” he said.

The county was better prepared to handle emergencies with which it was familiar, such as major floods in the lower Russian River, Gore said, but was overwhelmed by the sudden eruption of six major fires in the region and a half-dozen smaller ones.

“We were grossly underprepared for the new normal,” Gore said. “We should have woken up the world.”

Gore, who took over as board chairman in January, and County Administrator Sheryl Bratton said in Thursday’s interview they were never told before the wildfires about a decision by the county’s former emergency services manager, Christopher Helgren, not to use wireless alert technology during local disasters.

Helgren has said he wasn’t confident the alerts could be targeted to an area smaller than the entire county, although state officials said this week that county emergency staff didn’t keep up with technological improvements to the wireless system.

Bratton has not asked Helgren who he informed of his decision, she said. She reassigned him last week to a different job updating a county plan to keep the government’s day-to-day operations running during future disasters. She has not ruled out dismissing him, saying such a step would require a complete assessment of pre- and post-fire actions, expected in a pair of pending county and state reports.

Bratton, as the county’s top executive, was in charge of emergency operations that night, and she sketched out a clearer picture of her actions, the role of people around her at county headquarters and in the field, and the inadequate flow of information that night.

She arrived at the emergency operations center about midnight, told of the fires by Jim Colangelo, Helgren’s direct boss as interim head of the county’s Fire and Emergency Services department. But even from that nerve center, it was difficult to know the full extent of the fires or how to keep the community safe, she said.

“I had no visibility of the issue — you’re in a bunker,” she said. “I’d see people run into the EOC who drove through fire, who left a burning house, and you could see the terror on their faces. … We were just getting bits and drabs of information.”

She shared her surprise to hear the Kohl’s department store west of Highway 101 in north Santa Rosa was threatened, meaning the flames had jumped six lanes of paved freeway and frontage roads.

The Tubbs fire, which began before 10 p.m. outside Calistoga, took that leap about 2 a.m. as it advanced on Coffey Park, where 1,300 homes burned.

She said the county civilian official most directly responsible for communicating with the public in the firestorm’s first hours was Zachary Hamill, an emergency coordinator who was away at an out-of-town work conference with Helgren. As the two drove back from Yosemite National Park, Hamill corresponded with dispatchers on a laptop computer to trigger warnings to the public, Bratton said.

Those messages went out on county’s SoCo Alert system, a program that requires people to sign up for email and phone warnings.

The system failed to reach more than half of its intended recipients in the early hours of the disaster, according to public records. Sheriff’s officials, beginning at 10:51 p.m. Oct. 8, also were issuing fire warnings and evacuation orders on Nixle, another opt-in messaging platform.

Authorities in the field were knocking on doors and driving through neighborhoods blaring their sirens and loudspeakers.

But Bratton and Gore both said that one of their top misgivings about the county’s emergency management in those first hours was the failure to send advance warnings to a wider swath of the county through wireless messages. If another firestorm happened today, those messages would be triggered, they said, noting the use of precautionary wireless warnings sent to 12 million people in the Southern California fires of December.

“If you do it correctly, you cannot over-alert people,” Gore said.

Gore and Bratton said they were not aware of any evidence indicating shortfalls in warnings led to any of the 24 fire deaths in the county. Bratton, a former assistant county counsel, also was unaware of any legal claims against the county over its failure to send mass cellphone alerts as the fires began. She said she wouldn’t be surprised if any arise in the future.

Bratton and Gore stressed that evacuation orders during natural disasters best come from first responders and law enforcement officers who are on the ground reporting back their observations, underscoring the difficulty county leaders face in communicating clearly with the public.

“I don’t think there’s an eye in the sky in the dark of night,” Bratton said.

In Gore’s view, Sonoma County did not pay sufficient heed to the lessons learned by Lake County, which weathered major wildfires in each of the past three years. Officials there did send mass cellphone alerts in October and no one died in the county’s Sulphur fire, which burned more than 3 square miles and 134 homes. In Sonoma County, by comparison, about 137 square miles were burned and nearly 5,300 homes destroyed.

“We live in a time where people have the highest expectations of government and the lowest trust in government,” Gore said. “To me, you can’t control the world but you got to own your link in the chain ... and I would say that our link needs to be drastically improved. If I have confidence that, no matter what, that we did it all that we could have, then I can be proud.”

The state review of Sonoma County’s emergency notification procedures is expected out soon. Gore and Bratton were briefed this week on the preliminary findings, which they hope to have in writing in advance of supervisors’ public discussion Tuesday about emergency alerts.

In the wake of those early recommendations, Gore and Bratton both endorsed changes to the county’s disaster procedures. In addition to backing mobile alerts, they said emergency staff should remain in the county during the type of high-fire risk “red-flag” warnings that proceeded October’s firestorm.

Going forward, Gore said he was very concerned about the risk of catastrophic fires, particularly in Santa Rosa’s hilly neighborhoods off Chanate Road, the rural outskirts of Healdsburg and Cloverdale and the forested Sonoma Coast.

“We are a tinderbox ready to go,” Gore said. “This is just the beginning. We have until August to get our s--t together.”

Copyright 2018 The Press Democrat

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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