Questions to Sonoma County officials about failure to warn residents of fires remain unanswered
Questions about why many people were not warned about the fast-moving fires approaching their neighborhoods last month went unanswered by Sonoma County emergency services managers Friday for the second consecutive week.
The county Fire and Emergency Services Department has not provided data on who was warned — and at what time — on the night of the deadly Oct. 8 firestorms. Officials also refused to explain their decision to refrain from using a government alert system that could have warned cellphone users as the fires spread out of control.
The Press Democrat has repeatedly over the course of two weeks requested information from the department and interviews with emergency manager Chris Helgren and emergency coordinator Zachary Hamill, top staff within the county’s emergency management division. Neither employee has responded to emails, voice messages and requests through four county spokespeople, both over the phone and through text messages.
A large and vocal group of residents have said they received no warnings from public safety agencies about the fires, even hours after they erupted across Sonoma County. The wind-whipped blazes killed 23 people and destroyed more than 5,300 homes, eventually burning 178 square miles of Sonoma County before they were contained.
As the fires burned, county officials decided not to send an Amber Alert-style push notification to cellphone users. Instead, they relied on programs — like web-based Nixle messaging service and SoCo Alerts through a software called CodeRED — that only sent cellphone and email messages to people who had already enrolled to receive them. Less than 3 percent of the population had signed up for these alerts.
In addition, they sent targeted warnings to residents with landline telephones living in the county.
Residents have expressed outrage that county emergency services staff didn’t use every tool available to warn them about the approaching fires.
“I’ve received flooding alerts, Amber Alerts, but we never heard anything (the night of the fires),” said Judi McGee, 52, a Larkfield resident who finally evacuated her family about 1:45 a.m. Oct. 9 as nearby homes were being engulfed in flames. “It came from Calistoga. How did it come from Calistoga to Santa Rosa and none of us knew?”
The issue has shined a light on a mostly behind-the scenes group of workers charged with leading the county’s disaster preparations and response.
With a $10 million budget, Sonoma County’s Fire and Emergency Services Department is in charge of rural fire prevention, volunteer fire companies, hazardous materials and emergency services. It has about 24 employees.
The emergency services division, led by Helgren, uses about $1.6 million of the fire department’s budget.
One of the division’s main goals for the current fiscal year was to increase sign-ups for the voluntary emergency alert programs, including the SoCo Alert messaging system “to ensure that Sonoma County residents are informed of emergency situations,” according to the county’s adopted budget for July 2017 through June 2018.
The county’s Fire and Emergency Services Department was already being scrutinized to determine whether its fire program, which solely relies on volunteer firefighters, was outdated. In July, its fire chief resigned and the county brought in a consultant from Monterey, Jim Colangelo, to conduct a six-month review and make recommendations.
It’s unclear whether Colangelo is also looking at the county’s disaster response program. He did not respond to a request for an interview this week.
Supervisors Susan Gorin and James Gore, whose districts were heavily impacted by the fires, also didn’t respond to requests for interviews on Thursday and Friday through voicemail messages, text messages and spokespeople.
Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Shirlee Zane said she wasn’t aware that county staff had failed to respond to Press Democrat requests over the course of two weeks, and was told Helgren was preparing to speak about the issue.
“We all want to know what we did and how it played out the way it did. We all want to know that. There’s no doubt about that,” she said. “There’s no intent to hide things from our public because there’s really nothing more important.”
Zane said she’s heard concerns from residents about the alert system and has asked County Administrator Sheryl Bratton to have an independent consultant conduct an audit of the county’s emergency notification system and how public alerts were used when the fires ignited Oct. 8.
“I don’t think there’s any more important role the county plays than protecting community from disasters,” Zane said.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.