Sonoma County Sheriff tweets in Spanish after feedback from community during Tubbs Fire

A home burns at a vineyard during the Kincade fire near Geyserville, California on October 24, 2019.

When the Tubbs Fire broke out in Santa Rosa two years ago, Juan Valencia’s parents and many other Latino community members received important news updates from Spanish-language TV and radio stations.

“And I just thought about my parents,” Valencia said Friday morning. “I wanted my parents to get crucial updates from me.” 

So now, the first-generation American, Spanish-speaking sergeant for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office sends out tweets like this: Todo de Geyserville está bajo orden de evacuación obligatoria, right after he tweets out this: All of Geyserville now under mandatory evacuation order. 

“We got a lot of feedback after the Tubbs Fire,” he said, “that we weren’t providing enough information in Spanish. We always want to look ahead and be engaged in the community.”

His community includes roughly 30 percent of Spanish speakers and most, he said, are appreciative of the dual-language news conferences and Facebook posts, too. And in August, he was promoted to the job of public information officer so that he could help provide his community this dual-language service.

As of Friday morning, the Kincade Fire, located in the heart of Wine County, had spread to nearly 22,000 acres and the entire community of Geyserville was still evacuated. 

Kincade Fire grows, one of nine fires in California

Muchas gracias Oficial Custodio estamos en alerta,” Salvador Ruvalcaba on the department’s Facebook page.

Tod Stack Samson also was checking in on Facebook. “Thank you for keeping us updated AND doing it in ASL, Spanish and English. Pls stay safe and know you’re appreciated,” he wrote in a post.

Not everyone was so complimentary.

“Speak English,” John Cooper said. A few others said they were leaving the department’s FB page to find information that they could understand.

“I’m OK with the Spanish updates,” Cooper said later in a phone interview. “But what about the English updates?”

Dramatic images of the Kincade Fire

Later, Cooper said he was actually OK with the sheriff giving out information in two languages; it’s just that he doesn’t know how to scroll through Facebook to see that the sheriff was posting in both English and Spanish and holding news conferences in both languages at different times. Valencia has been trying to address this issue by answering commenters complaints in real time and providing as much Spanish and English in both posts as he can.

This is not the first time the sheriff’s office has come out for the Latino community.

In 2017, then-Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano took on former ICE Acting Director Thomas D. Homan who accused  29-year-old Jesus Fabian Gonzalez on suspicion of lighting a small fire in Sonoma, near to the massive, cluster of deadly wildfires that season. Gonzalez had been arrested for arson in that fire, but there was no reason to believe he was necessarily connected to the Tubbs Fire at that point, Giordano said publicly at a news conference.

Smoke from the Kincade Fire in Geyserville, Calif. billows around a PG&E pole. Oct. 24, 2019

“There is no indication that Gonzalez had anything to do with these fires and it appears highly unlikely. ICE's misleading statement stirs fear in some of our community members who are already exhausted and scared,” Giordano said.

Giordano also had not honored several requests to send Gonzalez back to Mexico on an ICE detailer -  a fact that Homan said put the community in danger. But Giordano didn’t back down.  

The sheriff’s office acknowledges it has worked hard to repair community relationships ever since a deputy shot and killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez in 2013, after the teen was carrying an airsoft gun that looked like an AK-47 assault rifle.

“When we believe in something we explain it and stand behind it,” Valencia said. “We’re confident in what we do, even when we get critiques.”

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