(CN) – At the California Judicial Council’s meeting Friday, a Wine Country trial judge stressed the importance of an emergency disaster plan for the courts as he recounted the harrowing wildfires that burned a swath across Northern California in late October.
“We didn’t know at any point whether the fire would overtake one or more of the courthouses,” said Sonoma County Superior Judge Gary Nadler, who was acting presiding judge at the time.
The fires eventually destroyed some 6,000 homes and buildings in Sonoma County. Fortunately, the civil and family law courthouse and hall of justice were not among them, but it came perilously close.
“We discovered that there were embers, big burning embers on the roof of our civil and family courthouse,” Nadler said.
Sonoma County’s courts are situated between the Coffey Park and Fountain Grove neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, two areas most devastated by the Tubbs Fire.
With the electricity out on Cleveland Avenue, no one could get into the civil and family courthouse and even Nadler didn’t have a key. As buildings across the street went up in smoke, one employee was able to rescue the server that houses the court’s case information.
“We had one person that had a key to get in, and that was our IT director,” Nadler said. “He literally took the server that was a backup for our court case management system in his arms in his car and drove it up to his family home up in Northern California because he felt that would be safer than leaving it in the courthouse, which could just burn to the ground as so many buildings did.”
Meanwhile, the nearby Fountain Grove Inn caught fire.
“I talked to a sheriff’s deputy who witnessed that fire and he told me it was like somebody put a match to a matchbox, that hotel went up in a matter of minutes,” Nadler said. “It was like an explosion of fire.”
As the fire crept toward the hall of justice, which was at that point zero percent contained, Nadler said he was focused on trying to contact of every member of the bench.
“I tried immediately to keep tabs on my judicial officers. I used my cellphone and I had their cell numbers and some of them had cellphone service and some did not because the cellphone towers were burning. Some have land lines and some did not. Some had emails and some had texting. They were keeping in touch with me as best they could.”
The court began the arduous process of trying to reopen in the aftermath, even as a plume of smoke settled over the south county and the air was choked with embers.
Following a nine-day closure, there was a backlog of cases waiting to be processed. Court employees, some of whom had lost homes, worried about whether they would be getting paid. Without a solid communication plan for disasters, Nadler said the court struggled to keep in touch with employees and the public.
“My thrust here today, more than anything, is to get us to think about anticipating emergencies,” Nadler said. “We had a problem with communication. I was keeping a running list of who had what communication and where and that was just the judicial officers. I suggest that we think about a better solution and to be prepared for it in the future.”
In the end, three judges lost their homes. Nadler said he was overwhelmed when they still showed up to work.
“They were ready to work. They jumped right into the fray. Any judge in our bench would have done anything and I am really so unbelievably proud of them,” he said. “It is a level of commitment that really cannot be measured in words.”
During his presentation, Nadler displayed a photo of Judge Elliot Daum, who stood grinning next to a red pickup truck. A second photo showed the remains of Daum’s home, reduced to a hole filled with white ash.
And yet, Nadler said, Daum was excited. “He called and said he wanted to take me out to lunch. He said, ‘I have to share this story.’ He drives up in the red pickup truck, which is his favorite pickup truck. The front of it was melted but the truck was working and that was the only thing that was left out of that rubble.”
After lunch, Nadler said, Daum went out to the back of the truck and showed him the half-filled gas can. Even though the truck had been parked near the house during the fire, miraculously the can had not ignited.
“The truck was parked near that house and the house, as you can see, was rubble,” Nadler said. “He lost everything else but the truck and the gas can with gas in it survived.”