2018 has been blessedly free of disasters for west Sonoma County, but the October firestorm of 2017 left us skittish and wondering when the next shoe (or fiery ember) was going to drop.
As the City of Santa Rosa and county government struggled to help those whose lives had been upended by the fires, “recovery and resilience” became the watchwords of the year in Sonoma County. In west Sonoma County, which escaped relatively unscathed from last year’s disaster, the word on the lips of every local official was “disaster preparedness.”
Sebastopol: fire-proofing homes and getting to know your neighbors
At a town hall meeting in August, Sebastopol Fire Chief Bill Braga recounted what the city and his department had been doing to prepare for the next fire or disaster.
Braga said he had been busy with weed abatement, making sure Sebastopol property owners were making their properties fire-safe by abiding by the city’s weed abatement ordinance.
In June, because of the extreme fire danger, the city council approved a weed abatement resolution that allowed the city to remove weeds from non-compliant properties — at the property owner’s expense.
Braga encouraged people to tend to their own properties, but also encouraged them to call him at the firehouse at 707-823-8061 if they saw properties that look dangerously overrun with weeds and brush.
“Let me know if you have a neighbor that is out of control with weed abatement, inside or outside of Sebastopol, and I will follow up. That’s my promise to you. If they’re outside of my jurisdiction, I will make sure it gets forwarded to the appropriate fire department to take care of it.”
As a part of fire preparedness, Braga said he has brought back two city programs that had fallen into disuse: CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) (sebastopolcert.org) and Map Your Neighborhood (sebastopolcert.org/map-your-neighborhood).
As a part of Map Your Neighborhood, neighbors get together to do disaster planning together, identifying the skills and equipment each neighbor has that would be useful in a disaster response. Then they create a lot-by-lot neighborhood map, filling in contact information for everyone on the block and identifying the location of the gas, electric and water shut offs.
Braga emphasized the importance of neighbors helping neighbors because in large emergencies there just aren’t enough first responders to go around.
“I would like to always be there for you, but I cannot always be there,” Braga told the several hundred people gathered for the town hall. “In the event of a major emergency, we will get there, and we will help you, but in a large, uncontrollable event we’re not sure when. That’s why we promote emergency preparedness and disaster planning.”
At the end of November, Sebastopol held a meeting of its emergency shelters to look back on their experiences during the fire, when they housed and fed thousands of evacuees, and see what they could do better next time. The meeting was the first step toward creating a new 2019 Shelter Response Plan for Sebastopol and a volunteer registry that could connect volunteers with particular skills to specific shelters in the network.
People who ran the shelters during the October firestorm talked about their experiences, and though there were wobbles, most felt the local shelters had done an amazing job, thanks in part the outpouring of volunteer help from the community.
Analy’s facilities manager Jennie Bruneman, who ran the Analy shelter, put it this way: “We did a pretty damn phenomenal response to a situation where we were all woken up in the middle of the night and asked to come and serve our community, and it worked it out pretty dang well.”
Greater west county
Wooded west county, with its miles of narrow, windy roads, was particularly worried about fire this year, especially as the long dry season wore on.
But even before that Russian River residents were wondering how they would escape if a fire like the Tubbs Fire broke out in the narrow confines of the Russian River Valley. In January, fire and emergency responders met with nearly 100 lower Russian River residents in Guerneville to talk about evacuation options. The Russian River Fire Department handed out evacuation maps and a one-sheet, listing emergency contacts and what to bring in the event of evacuation. (See russianriverfire.org/evacuation-maps-and-quick-guide.)
“The message we have today is empower yourself,” said the sheriff department’s Community Engagement Liaison Misti Harris.
Harris also urged residents to sign up for SoCoAlert, the Sonoma County emergency notification service that contacts users by telephone, mobile phone, text message, email and social media. (See socoalert.com.)
Those warning systems, which were so hit and miss during last year’s firestorm, got a thorough testing in September, when both SocoAlert and the two federal testing systems — wireless emergency alerts (WEA), the emergency alert system (EAS) — ran live tests. Unfortunately, they ran them on successive days, which mostly managed confused people about whether they had — or had not — received a warning and who had sent it.
“We tested the alert and warning systems to help identify the capabilities and gaps, and we’ll use this information to make any improvements,” wrote Supervisor James Gore of the test. “We know it’s still not perfect, but we’re making progress.”
PG&E steps up
The emergency alert services weren’t the only large organizations testing and making changes to their systems. PG&E is reaching out to customers who live in or near high fire-threat areas, which includes a large section of west county, to let them know that, if extreme fire danger conditions occur, it may be necessary for PG&E to temporarily turn off power to their neighborhood or community. (PG&E’s fallen or sparking wires are suspected of causing some of the fires last year.) Some of the factors that can determine if power will be shut off include strong winds, very low humidity levels and critically dry vegetation that could serve as fuel for wildfire, according to a press release from the company.
PG&E has also installed several new weather stations in west county that will provide data to help determine whether PG&E should turn off the power to high fire danger areas.
James Gore, supervisor for the 4th district, has become the unofficial resilience and recovery guru for the county. Gore says taking personal responsibility for disaster preparedness is connected to community preparedness.
“True resilience has to start at the individual and community level, because people on the ground will know and see what the dangers are around them and they will demand more out of their government. It is a self-feeding, positive cycle. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”