Sonoma County residents were only two years removed from the devastating 2017 Tubbs Fire and had become organized since then. This helped firefighters get in to fight the Kincade Fire instead of getting people to safety.
After a forced evacuation that began last Saturday, most Sonoma County, Calif., residents were allowed to return home Wednesday as firefighters reached nearly 70 percent containment of the Kincade Fire that had burned more than 77,000 acres as of Friday morning.
“It could have been way worse,” Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine told the San Francisco Chronicle. Worse like the 2017 Tubbs Fire that killed 22 and destroyed more than 5,600 buildings.
The county was roundly criticized after the 2017 fires for not alerting people and seemingly learned its lesson, ordering evacuations early this time around. “You cannot fight this,” Sheriff Mark Essick urged residents.
This time, the county used multiple alerts multiple times to get people out of the way of the flames. The county used the Wireless Emergency Alert System, NOAA radios, SoCoAlert, the Sonoma County alert system, Facebook and the Emergency Alert System and the sheriff deployed its hi-lo sirens up and down the roads to further highlight the danger.
“You can see it’s a full-court press,” said Christopher Godley, director of Sonoma County Emergency Management. “It’s not just multiple systems one time, we believe we have to have that second and third corroborating alert to move people into action.”
The fact that residents cleared out gave firefighters an effectiveness that they didn’t have the luxury of in 2017 when they were mostly tasked with getting people out of harm’s way.
About 186,000 county residents were under mandatory evacuation requirements, which was “relatively successful,” Godley said. “We had significant compliance with the mandatory evacuations.”
Perhaps the biggest factor in getting people out of danger, though, was the level of awareness. Certainly, having been through a fire like the Tubbs Fire will create that awareness, but the county also helped facilitate that during the last two years.
After the Tubbs Fire, Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore organized block captains to establish groups to participate in preparedness activities. Some of those groups developed into Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies (COPE) groups.
Gore said that instead of going out and having a bunch of town hall meetings after the fires, it made more sense to organize the community to prepare for the next fire. “They don’t want speeches, they want to talk to somebody,” Gore said in a conversation with Emergency Management days before the Kincade Fire broke out.
The block captains got an instruction list — get everyone’s emails; collect contact information — and get a Facebook page together or another way to spread the information. “We started this and still meet with the block captains every week, and it’s been two years,” Gore said.
The key to the alerting systems is to not be afraid to use them, Gore said. “To me, the failure of preparedness lies with one word — liability. People do not test this stuff and go and do this, not just because it’s a lot of work but because they worry about something bad happening. They don’t put up evacuation signs because if somebody dies during an evacuation, you’re liable.”
Gore called it a bunker mentality — retreating to the EOC when something happens, doing training in a controlled environment without the participation of the community, instead of understanding that there will be flaws, that preparedness will never be perfect, and that the community must be organized.
“I have a couple of mantras I stay close to since the [Tubbs] fires. One is, ‘The only real progress is imperfect’ and the other is, ‘Wake up others and stay woke.’”