When does the city of Sonoma open cooling centers?

More than 50 sought refuge at SOS cooling station in the Springs.|

More than 50 people sought refuge at a Springs-area “cooling center” during last week’s scorching heat wave in Sonoma Valley.

The air-conditioned climes and free water and Popsicles were hosted by Sonoma Overnight Support at the Springs Community Hall at 18627 Highway 12, where the homeless services nonprofit offers regular daytime meals to food-insecure residents.

“Looks like we served 53 people which is good,” SOS Executive Director Kathy King said Thursday, toward the end of a day that saw temperatures peak at 106 degrees in the early afternoon. The cooling center was utilized by “families and homeless,” she said.

SOS offered one of 12 cooling stations opened in the county last week, with others held at various senior centers and recreation halls in cities throughout the region.

Sonoma City Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti applauded SOS for giving vulnerable residents a chance to escape the heat, noting that Glen Ellen Market, Safeway and former City Councilmember Gary Edwards all donated water and icy treats to the effort. But Agrimonti was also disappointed neither city nor county officials took the lead on hosting a Sonoma cooling station, instead leaving it to a homeless-services organization to “jump into action.”

Agrimonti said cooling stations aren’t just for homeless, but are utilized by families with children, seniors and anyone else “in need of relief from the heat.”

“Being (a small town) doesn’t mean less, we can do better,” she said.

Sonoma Interim City Manager Sue Casey said she was “grateful (to SOS) for stepping up” and opening the cooling station, since extreme heat events like the past week “are an unfortunate new reality.”

Casey conceded that the city’s process for opening a cooling center isn’t as flexible as it is for private organizations or nonprofits.

In order for the city of Sonoma to open a cooling center, explained Casey, a health-related heat emergency would need to be declared – typically from the state or the county, but if the emergency was purely local, the city could declare. At that point, the city’s Emergency Operations Center would be activated, and then the city’s EOC staff – the on-call duty officer, plus staff for operations, plans and logistics sections – would be required to report for duty.

“It’s hard to believe after experiencing the record-breaking temperatures this week,” said Casey, but based on the National Weather Service (NWS) Heat Risk Prototype, the city of Sonoma was in the Orange, Moderate Risk category, which didn’t meet the threshold for the state or county to declare a health emergency.

As described by the NWS, the Orange category is a “moderate risk for those who are sensitive to heat, especially those without effective cooling and/or adequate hydration.”

The next tier, or Red category, establishes a “high risk” warning, but the NWS never elevated Sonoma to that level, said Casey.

City staff and Sonoma Valley fire officials “were actively monitoring the situation,” she added.

Casey said the only time she could recall a cooling center operating in the city of Sonoma was in August of 2020, when county officials hosted one over the course of two days at the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building on First Street West. She said it took place during the height of the COVID-19 Delta variant, when many businesses were still operating at a limited indoor capacity, and was utilized by only a handful of people.

King expressed disappointment with the city for not taking the lead on a cooling center, but said continued talks with city officials have opened the door to the city having a more active role should one be needed in the future.

Casey echoed the sentiment, saying those without access to air conditioning, or experiencing homelessness, are the most vulnerable during extreme heat events.

“While this event wasn’t a technical emergency, there is clearly community interest in cooling centers,” said Casey. “City staff is in discussion about how we can partner with our community organizations and the county to address this in the future.”

Until then, Sonoma Mayor Jack Ding counts himself among those grateful when nonprofit organizations can step up to the plate, “especially during critical times when the government is not available.”

“SOS could do it this time – (and) not because it is easy for them to operate it,” said Ding. “It is also very difficult for (them).”

Ding described their “sacrifice” of time, energy and funds to put on the cooling center as “a shining point” reflective of Sonoma's strong community spirit.

Email Jason Walsh at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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