Firestorm Death Toll Rises, as Do Questions About Alerts

A Cazadero firefighter struggles to protect a home from catching fire in Coffey Park in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP)

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (CN) – The series of wildfires burning across Northern California over the last week have so far killed 41 people, and dozens remain missing. While calming winds and an enormous influx of firefighters and other resources have helped contain the blazes, the lull provides the opportunity for a first look at whether officials did enough to warn residents about the rapidly spreading blaze, particularly in Sonoma County.

Sonoma County Sheriff Ron Giordano said 22 residents in his county have been declared dead, with 88 still missing. He warned the body count will likely continue to rise.

“I would expect to find some of the missing in their burned homes,” he told reporters on Monday. “We are still working on targeted searches.”

While the sheriff is in recovery mode, other county officials have begun to field questions about whether warnings sent out to residents as the fires broke out late in the evening Oct. 1 were sufficient.

Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Coordinator Zachary Hamill said he made the decision not to send out an emergency alert to county residents, fearing that it would go to people not immediately in harm’s way and clog transportation routes for firefighters and other first responders.

“If I had done the Wireless Emergency Alert I would have been notifying Petaluma, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, Sonoma – all of the cities and unincorporated areas in the county,” Hamill said. “And I didn’t need to do that, I needed to focus on who specifically needed help.”

Instead, email and text alerts were broadcast, with the first of those going out at 10:51 p.m.

The county also used a company called SoCal alerts to send out notifications via cellphone. However, these services all required subscriptions.

Only about 7,500 of Santa Rosa’s 170,000 residents subscribed to the SoCal alerts, according to county officials. Officials also employed reverse 911 calls in certain areas of the county, but many residents now rely solely on cellphones which can’t be reached by reverse 911.

The situation was complicated by the fact that 77 cell towers were knocked out during the fire, making it difficult for residents attempting to use social media to get up-to-date information.

The Tubbs Fire, which began Sunday evening at around 9:45 p.m. near Calistoga, was pushed by high winds and reached the outskirts of Santa Rosa, the biggest Wine Country city with a population of about 170,000 – by 1 a.m.

The front edge of the fire poured into the ravines in the northeastern part of town, moving quickly on sustained winds of 40 miles per hour. Hundreds of structures between Mark West Springs Road and the Fountaingrove Parkway burned to the ground and tens of thousands of residents were forced to evacuate in the middle of the night with little to no warning.

At 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 2, Sonoma County officials began evacuating residents, in some cases going door to door to get people out. Some had minutes to evacuate before the fire incinerated their homes.

Some, as the mounting death toll indicates, were not as lucky.

By 2:00 a.m., hurricane-force gusts carried the inferno across Highway 101 and by the early hours of Monday morning, it reached Coffey Park, a populated area of Santa Rosa, razing much of the area.

As many as 1,500 structures in Santa Rosa alone were destroyed, causing an estimated $1.2 billion in damage.

Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott told reporters his agency will investigate whether more could have been done to alert residents and avert the deadliest fire in state history. But he also wondered aloud whether the fast-moving fire provided enough time.

“People were in bed, asleep at midnight, and these fires came down on these communities with no warning within minutes,” Pimlott said. “There was little time to notify anybody by any means.”

Furthermore, evacuation alerts have caused the type of confusion and congestion that Hamill fretted over, including during a fire in the Southern California city of Riverside this year. Alerts there caused several hundred thousand people to pour out of their homes, complicating fire suppression efforts and needlessly worrying residents far removed from the fire.

Regarding the Wine Country fires, Sonoma County wasn’t the only area afflicted with fatalities.

Deaths have been associated with the other major fires in the region, including the Atlas Fire which burned more than 50,000 acres to the east of the Napa and continues to rage, and the Nuns Fire that burned over 50,000 acres west of Napa and southwest of Santa Rosa.

And two people died in the Redwood Fire in Mendocino County, well to the north of the three aforementioned fires. But the Tubbs Fire has been by far the deadliest.

In Lake County, emergency officials did opt to send alert notifications to their residents in response to the Sulphur Fire, sending out notifications that essentially turn cellphones into squawking alarms.  The wake-up call was sent to most of the county’s 64,000 residents at 2 a.m. Monday morning. The county has not reported any fatalities.

The cause of the firestorms remain under investigation.

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