Santa Rosa supervisors react with anger and frustration to critical wildfire response report

Sonoma County's Board of Supervisors reacted with anger, frustration and tears this morning as they discussed a state Office of Emergency Services report that criticized the gaps in the county's emergency alert system on the night of the Oct. 8-9 wildfires.

The fires in the Fountaingrove and Coffey Park areas of Santa Rosa, the Mark West Springs Road area north of the city and in Sonoma Valley destroyed 5,300 homes and killed 24 people.

The report said specific procedures for using emergency alerts and warning capabilities were uncoordinated and included gaps, overlays and redundancies regarding capabilities in various county departments.

The report noted the county's emergency alert system did not use wireless alert technology to warn the public of the disaster. The wireless systems included the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system that sends texts to all cellphones in a specific area, and the Emergency Alert System that uses radio, wireless cable systems and cable television systems.

Instead, the county relied on Sonoma County Alert and Nixle, both of which require residents to sign up for phone and email emergency alerts.

That led to a "limited awareness and understanding of the WEA system and outdated information regarding WEA's technical capabilities," according to the report.

The procedures and policies the county used during floods were misunderstood and was not applicable to the fast-moving, complex fire situation, the report states.

"Everyone knows what happened and what didn't in the Fog of War," Supervisor David Rabbitt said. 

"My district was ground zero and I didn't see anything in this report on the Sonoma Valley," Supervisor Susan Gorin said as she began crying.

"You guys and gals rock," Gorin told Jim Colangelo, interim director of the Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department. "To say I am horribly disappointed is an understatement."

Gorin, who lost her Oakmont home in the Nuns Fire, said she has heard evacuation horror stories from her constituents.

"Not one person received an alert. What the hell are we doing here?" Gorin asked.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said she was not surprised by the OES report in view of last year's flooding. She decried the lack of the role of elected officials, timely communication, lack of education and outreach and lack of evacuation planning for vulnerable populations.

"I take full responsibility and own up to the mistakes but there is a bigger role for the state," Hopkins said. She said there should be multiple emergency alert systems in effect statewide.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said, "I wish the California Office of Emergency Services was here. The 58 counties are handling emergencies differently and Cal Fire is grossly underfunded."

Board chair James Gore said the county "must own this moment and not point fingers. We need to talk about this together for a long time."

"Everyone knows what we have doesn't work. It needs to be blown up and fixed," Rabbitt said. "What is the role of the state? Is every city and county on their own?"

During the morning-long work session of the OES report and its recommendations, the board heard presentations about installing digital fire alert cameras on light poles or microwave towers to serve as modern lookouts and sounding sirens during emergencies and disasters.