Oct 8, 2018
By James Gore
The past year has been one of the most taxing that we’ve faced together. The October fires took 24 lives from us. It burned more than 173 square miles and rendered almost 7,000 homes and businesses into ash. It was a disaster in every sense. Last October, I was devastated by the losses of my friends, family and neighbors throughout Sonoma County.
As leaders, the Board of Supervisors had to answer for all of these heartbreaking losses, despite the unprecedented nature of the blaze. In the days and weeks that followed, we learned from the lessons that the fires taught us and moved to prepare for the next disaster that could face us.
First and foremost -- alert and warning. This was the most immediate mandate stemming from last October and we’ve spent the past year rethinking how alert and warning can be implemented. In mid-September, we tested the alert and warning systems to help identify the capabilities and gaps and we’ll use this information to make any improvements. We know it’s still not perfect, but we’re making progress.
The assessment showed us that the tech has a long way to go to meet public expectation. There was spill-over from targeted areas, there were issues with different cell carriers and inconsistencies with receiving. This shows us that we need to push for changes at the state and federal level and double down at the local level on resiliency.
We’ve also enacted policies to ensure that every possible alert system will be used in the case of life-threatening disaster to make sure people know if they need to evacuate.
There’s also an alert and warning subcommittee of public safety individuals from local jurisdictions who are focused on devising countywide standards and protocols for alerting and warning the public.
Multiple county agencies are working to install an eight-camera network of high-definition cameras that will serve as a command control system for the Lake Sonoma watershed. Two of those are already up and can be viewed at alertwildfire.org. These eight cameras will serve as a start for a countywide and potentially region-wide network. Fire cameras such as these serve to provide excellent situational awareness for emergency professionals and the public alike.
A system of 22 stream and rain gauges were installed throughout the Nuns and Tubbs fires burn areas and downstream of them. The gauges enhance our ability to monitor for potential dangers during rainstorms and trigger advanced warnings for flooding, mudslides and other threats.
We improved the Fire and Emergency Services Staff Duty Officer after-hours response including warning system activations. We now operate a “warm” Emergency Operations Center. A warm EOC means the facility requires no additional set-up upon activation. If there is an indication of problematic weather conditions, such as a Red Flag Warning, emergency management now has two people on-call and located within an hour driving distance of the EOC at all times. We’re also hiring new staff for the emergency management team. These individuals will provide high-level direction as well as focus on alert and warning and community organizing around disaster preparedness.
Our Recovery and Resiliency Plan *(see link below) framework, developed with input from the community, outlines recovery and resiliency objectives for the following areas: Community Preparedness and Infrastructure, Housing, Economy, Natural Resources and Safety Net Services.
That framework will plot the course for the county as we progress through rebuild, but also critically important, as we strive to come back renewed and with a strong sense of resiliency. We all know that the biggest successes during the fires were neighbors helping neighbors and in my district we have deployed a resiliency network, which links up a dozen different sub-communities that live in the Wildland Urban Interface. Some, such as in Fitch Mountain, NE Geyserville and Mill Creek, are moving rapidly and already have outreach and have maps, evacuation routes and have accomplished advanced vegetation management. They are inspiring. They are bringing other similar communities together so that they can learn together and the county government can support them. The county position of the director of community engagement will look to take this regional work and move it countywide to boost this model of neighbor helping neighbor.
It goes without saying that the county could undertake thousands of measures and still not create a disaster-proof community. However, what’s important is that we make incremental imperfect progress every day and that’s our commitment as we enter year two of recovery.
* The draft Recovery Framework is now available for public review and comment.
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