Where Technology Left Gaps, a California County Looks to the Past

Sonoma County officials are in the early stages of a plan to bring warning sirens to a region where wildfire killed 24 people and warning protocols failed.

by J.D. Morris, The Press Democrat / September 26, 2018
The burned remains of the 100-year-old Stornetta Dairy complex, east of Sonoma. Shutterstock/RebeccaJaneCall

(TNS) — Sonoma County leaders signaled Tuesday they are exploring the use of warning sirens as a new tool to better alert the public about future wildfires or other major emergencies.

The county and Santa Rosa earlier this month applied for federal grant funds that would help design and install 20 warning sirens in various locations, with half the devices located in unincorporated areas and the other half installed in city limits, according to county staff.

The project is estimated to cost $850,000, of which $637,500 would be covered by grant funds.

The embrace of such conventional warning systems stems in part from the fallout over Sonoma County’s failure to issue more widespread alerts to residents in the path of October’s firestorm, which killed 24 people in the county. Many survivors were left to wonder why official evacuation alerts — in the form of phone calls, text messages or loudspeaker announcements — never came for them.

In future disasters, said Christopher Godley, the county’s interim emergency manager, sirens may be another tool to help warn people. But he cautioned that geography can limit their effectiveness.

“They work really well up until the point that they don’t,” Godley said Tuesday. “Sirens are part of a spectrum of warning systems, and they are not an all-in-one answer ... Sirens only work in one valley. They don’t go over to the next valley.”

Warning sirens are not in wide use in the region. A handful of fire-prone communities in Lake County this year installed fire sirens, prompted in large part by recommendations made in the aftermath of the deadly Valley fire in 2015.

In Sonoma County, the call to add such warning technology has been strong and consistent in the fires’ wake. The move is one of several safety measures envisioned in a draft recovery plan unveiled Tuesday to help the region recover from last year’s wildfires and prepare for future disasters.

The specific locations of the sirens have not been set and would be subject to more detailed analysis should the county and Santa Rosa succeed in getting the FEMA grant funds, which are administered by the state Office of Emergency Services.

The draft recovery plan includes a total of 270 proposed actions, only a small fraction of which were reviewed by supervisors during a marathon hearing Tuesday. They cover community preparedness and infrastructure, housing, economy, safety net services and natural resources.

Another recovery measure would entail working with private utilities — including cellphone carriers — to defend their equipment from disasters. On the housing side, the county wants to seek outside funds to help rebuild and retrofit more resilient homes in locations where urban and suburban areas merge with wildlands.

Tennis Wick, the county’s planning director, told supervisors Tuesday he expects to return within the next month with a “draft of housing legislation” to further reduce regulatory barriers and help promote housing construction within city limits.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who before the fires championed a mindset of “build, baby, build” to address the local housing crisis, said she wants to focus first and foremost on the 5,300 homes the fires destroyed in the county.

“I think some of the fire survivors are very sensitive to us talking about, as elected leaders, that we need to build, build, build,” Zane said. “We do need to build, build, build. (But) our first priority has got to be to help them rebuild.”

©2018 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.