Editorial: Things we learned in the fire

The Tubbs fire east of Sonoma was still spreading on Oct. 11. (Kent Porter/Press Democrat)


When county emergency officials began sending warning messages to residents at 10:51 p.m. on the night of Oct. 8, fires had been burning for more than an hour, and the situation was quickly getting out of hand. When few people received the warning because they hadn’t “opted in” to a little-known county cell-phone alert system – Sonoma County was well on its way to having a full-fledged disaster on its hands.

Despite the mighty winds of Zephyrus that night, the seeds of the October disaster had been sown long before the first spark hit dry brush on Tubbs Lane.

And, yes, they’d been sown even before count emergency services officials decided a year earlier to bypass the wireless “push notifications” that would have forced warnings to cell phones throughout the county.

Emergency officials apparently considered the prospect of a mass county alert – with the possibility of ensuing panic – was an unacceptable outcome in the event of a catastrophe. And, according to a recently released report from the state Office of Emergency Services, county officials were unaware that new technologies are capable of targeting the push notifications to select endangered neighborhoods. “Gaps, overlaps and redundancies” were three words the report used to describe the county’s warning capabilities.

In fact, according to some emergency alert experts, fearing over-exposure to disaster warnings more than the disaster itself flies in the face of widely agreed upon best practices. A quick google search for “emergency alert practices” brings up several articles and studies from alert-systems analysts, all saying pretty much the same thing – or, as a company called Alertus Technologies, puts it, “Get critical information to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, as much as possible.”

Everbridge, an incident-response consulting firm for local governments, includes among its emergency-notification “best practices” the advice that, “The more contact paths that are available and utilized, the higher the likelihood that a message will be received and viewed.”

And in its list of “top 10 reasons why emergency notifications systems fail,” a firm called Regroup Mass Notification places at No. 2 the “failure to deliver messages to all recipients.”

“Having a system that can deliver through more than one medium gives you a greater chance of getting the attention of those in harm’s way,” concludes Regroup.

It seems everyone knew this except Sonoma County, which was woefully unprepared to spread information in the event of a disaster.

Because this wasn’t merely a flaw at the office of Emergency Services -- the entire county didn’t seem to see this coming: from the Board of Supervisors to city governments to the average resident.

Not that the signs weren’t there. We live in an area of abundant wild flora following five years of drought. Two years ago, Lake County directly to the north lost 76,000 acres, as the Valley Fire raged for weeks in late September. In the sun-soaked summer of 2015, this paper, in a story about residential fire prevention, described the Sonoma Valley as a tinderbox.

And, yet, somehow on the morning of Oct. 9 the idea that significant portions of the Valley were burning like Nero-era Rome was a jaw-dropping surprise.

Last September, I-T correspondent Kathleen Hill emailed the Sonoma City Council with a suggestion that the city revitalize a long-dormant disaster-response committee.

She received only one reply – from Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti – and that was that. Until Oct. 8.

And, let’s be honest, it’s human nature to prioritize a problem that’s at hand – not a problem that’s hypothetical. Two years ago, the suggestion that “a fire might rage soon,” could have been met with, “yeah, but leaf blowers are definitely raging now.”

Whether we learn from this, only time will tell.

Back on Oct. 13, at a community information session about the fires held at Prestwood Elementary School – originally slated for the Vets Building, until fire officials feared it might burn down with everyone in it – elected officials and emergency spokespeople met with about 300 community members to update residents on the status of containment and evacuations.

After several local politicians each took their requisite turn at the mic, the session was opened for questions from the community.

And such issues were addressed as the status of the nearby Southern LNU Complex fire, when people can return to their homes, and whether schools would reopen soon.

And yet it was an entirely different question that stumped the emergency officials and local leadership.

That’s when a woman asked whether the county was prepared if it was hit that week with a significant earthquake.

To which officials laughed nervously, and quickly moved on to the next question.

To anyone not unsettled by that response, you should be.

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