What started as a localized fire in the Calistoga area of Napa County during the night of Oct. 8 quickly escalated into a multi-county firestorm engulfing many communities and leading to an unprecedented disaster.
“At 10 p.m. Sunday night, for us it quickly turned into a mad scramble to put together an immediate response by establishing a shelter in Calistoga,“ said Jeff Baumgartner, executive director of the American Red Cross California Northwest Chapter based in Santa Rosa. “As the fire spread, by 11 p.m. we sent volunteers with trailers full of supplies over the hill to the Napa area to open shelters. Bob Pawlan, one of our people, said it was a harrowing drive given the wind and fires burning all around as the fire moved toward Santa Rosa.”
Baumgartner lives in the Santa Rosa area of Coddingtown area and was awakened by text messages at 5 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 9 to get up and get out with his significant other and eight-month-old son. He notified neighbors before getting on the freeway and out of danger.
Growing up, he’d seen his father, a volunteer fireman, as he responded respond to a variety of life-threatening situations.
“As a child, I would hear the sirens go off letting everyone, including first responders, know an emergency was taking place and to report for duty. For me this October, I missed the Nixle alert and no siren went off indicating a need to evacuate. By the time I got to work there were 1,500 messages on our office phone. What we would like to do is be able to flip a switch and route most calls to 1-800-Red Cross where a group of operators can address many needs simultaneously based on a phone tree Q&A system asking questions that start with -- if you are experiencing a disaster press 1.”
Critics have voiced concerns over the lack of a comprehensive alert system that should have been deployed to let people know of the pending holocaust. While some were on Nixle lists for alerts, most were not or could not be reached, and there was no other common way to inform everyone in a timely manner outside of listening to radio stations such as KZST. The emergency alert system tested daily on cable TV networks was not activated.
Seeing shortcomings in the state’s ability to provide emergency alerts to residents in both large and small communities, California lawmakers including State Senator Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) and Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg), plan to introduce legislation in January designed to create a statewide emergency alert system in the wake of the North Bay wildfires that killed 44 people. They propose requiring so alerts can be sent via landlines, mobile devices and other media.
RED CROSS RESPONSE
Getting the response ball rolling on a fast track was a recipe for success. James Cooper, Red Cross disaster program manager mobilized the team that initially opened shelters at the Finley Center and Veteran’s Memorial Building in Santa Rosa with many more to come.
With the October fires, a declared disaster triggered evacuation orders signaling the Red Cross to open shelters – as many as 15 on a single day. In all, the local chapter (that includes six North Bay counties, four of which were involved in this fire) managed, touched and provided support to some 31 shelters across four counties (a figure hard to pin down as some were opened and closed and reopened later).