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Looking back at 2017 wildfires

A message from County Administrator Sheryl Bratton

Today we bring you a special edition of the Sonoma County Correspondent looking at the impacts of the 2017 wildfires, which changed our county in so many ways. This edition contains detailed accounts of not only what happened five years ago but how we responded as a County and, in particular, how our departments adjusted and improved its delivery of vital public services. These changes came at a critical time. They not only assisted in our recovery from the Tubbs, Nuns and Pocket fires, which destroyed 5,300 homes in Sonoma County, they have helped us withstand an unprecedented series of emergencies over the last five years, including four major wildfires, a flood, a drought of historic proportions and the COVID-19 pandemic

This was very much a team effort. Following the 2017 fires, with extensive input from block captains in neighborhoods ravaged by the firestorm, the county prioritized 10 projects to help our community recover and prepare for future disasters. The initiatives included better alerts and evacuation plans, improved building codes, expedited permitting for fire survivors seeking to rebuild, and expanded efforts to reduce the threat of fires by managing vegetation in key areas. I’m very proud of the progress we have made accomplishing so many of these goals. The stories that follow reflect the work that came with the setting of these priorities. 

Finally, I want to credit the dedication and perseverance of our county employees, who stepped forward during the crisis to offer a helping hand and have been assisting in our community’s recovery ever since. Many did so while facing immense personal loss. More than 150 county employees lost their homes in the 2017 fires. The progress we have made in rebuilding our county, as shown in the stories below, are a testament to the tireless work of these employees and a tribute to the tenacity of our entire community. We still have a ways to go in terms of building homes and building resiliency, but there’s no question that we are better prepared now than ever before for what challenges may come our way. We thank all members of our community for being a part of this progress.

Sheryl Bratton
County Administrator

A message from the Chair of the Board of Supervisors James Gore

Sometimes it feels like I was awoken in 2017 and never went back to sleep. After waking up in the dead of the night on Oct. 8, 2017 and talking to my cousin as he fled his burning home in Coffey Park, I joined the hundreds of other county employees in responding to the Tubbs and Nuns fires.

That night, and in the days that followed, 24 members of our community tragically lost their lives.

They were:

Karen Aycock
Michel Azarian
Carmen Berriz
Carol Collins-Swasey
Michael Dornbach
Valerie Evans
Mike Grabow
Arthur Grant
Suiko Grant
Donna Halbur
Leroy Halbur
Christina Hanson

Tak-fu Hung
Monte Kirven
Veronica McCombs
Carmen McReynolds
Lynne Powell
Marilyn Ress
Sharon Robinson
Lee Chadwick Rogers
Marjorie “Marnie” Schwartz
Daniel Martin Southard
Tamara Latrice Thomas
Linda Tunis

We continue to mourn the loss of everyone who died as a result of the Tubbs and Nuns fires. Those deaths and the loss of thousands of homes catalyzed our response as a county and as a community. We were determined to find meaning in the face of this catastrophe.

In the days, weeks and months that followed, as an organization, the county mobilized like never before. We brought fire survivors together and worked with them on debris removal, finding answers to questions about the insurance process and bringing in as many resources as we could.

At the same time, we overhauled how we approached emergency management, alerts and evacuations.

As the stories in this special edition of SoCo Correspondent highlight, we committed to building up the county’s resiliency to wildfire by allocating $25 million toward vegetation management.

We built the tools to inform the community before, during and after emergencies with SoCoEmergency.org.

All of these efforts were approached through the lens of equity as we established the Office of Equity.

As a community we’ve all woken up to the threat of wildfire around us. As a county government, we’ve woken up to the scale and scope of the task that still lies before us to continue to build our resilience and to prepare for disaster. And now we must endeavor to remain vigilant, not only about  the risks and our changing climate, but also for the opportunities to continue to improve and build our resilience.

On Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, we will be recognizing  the five years since the Sonoma Complex fires in a ceremony in Coffey Park. We’ll look back with sorrow but also with pride for the accomplishments we’ve made over the past five years.

Please join us at 1524 Amanda Place in Santa Rosa at 10 a.m. Spanish interpretation will be available. For those who cannot attend in person, the event will also be livestreamed via the City of Santa Rosa’s YouTube Channel, Youtube.com/CityofSantaRosa, starting at 10 a.m. It also will be shared on the County of Sonoma’s Facebook page.

Key investments by Board of Supervisors to rebuild Sonoma County

The magnitude of the challenge was daunting: Sonoma County needed to rebuild after the October 2017 wildfires, which claimed the lives of 24 people and destroyed 5,300 homes in unincorporated areas of the county and its cities.

But rebuilding alone was not enough. The county, its residents and its infrastructure needed to  become more resilient, capable of surviving future natural disasters and other shocks while continuing to advance.

The Board of Supervisors committed tens of millions of dollars to achieve that goal. Read more about how the county is far better prepared today for disaster than it was in 2017 when wind-whipped flames ripped through neighborhoods in the dead of night without warning.

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Department of Emergency Management overhauls disaster preparation, response

Many lessons would be learned during the 2017 wildfires. To implement them, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors created the Department of Emergency Management in 2019 and empowered the new agency to lead disaster planning, response and recovery.

The launching of the DEM has led to significant improvements, including:

  • Faster alerts, in English and Spanish, with alternative ways of warning residents of impending danger.
  • A network of cameras, powered by artificial intelligence, to quickly detect fires in remote areas at any hour of day or night.
  • Improvements in evacuation planning, including enhancements in services provided at emergency shelters.
  • Better communications, including closer coordination with local, state, federal and nonprofit organizations.

Read more »

Sheriff’s Office employs lessons from 2017 fires to improve emergency response

Few county departments played a more pivotal role in providing information and direct support to the community – and saving lives – following the outbreak of the Sonoma Complex fires than the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. Since then, the Office has fine-tuned evacuation plans and zones, implementing an efficient process that has proven to be effective even under the most unpredictable of circumstances. The Sheriff’s Office has also improved communications and response by implementing bilingual Nixle alerts, hi-lo sirens, evacuation tags, and a gate code registration program, all as a result of the most important lessons learned from the 2017 fires.

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Helping fire survivors has transformed Permit Sonoma

Every home rebuilt after the 2017 fires needed a building permit. Sonoma County’s permitting authority was at the forefront of the recovery, rolling out a new expedited permitting track for fire survivors as they began the process of rebuilding not only their homes but their lives after the fires.

Permit Sonoma embraced many of the lessons learned through the tragic fires in 2017, and subsequent disasters to bring improvements to its customers as a whole.

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Reducing fire fuel, veg management program saves lives, property

After the 2017 fires,  county leaders concluded that better vegetation management would help reduce the severity of future wildfires, improve evacuation access, and save lives and property.

The Board of Supervisors invested $25 million to create a wide-ranging vegetation management program that has funded 46 projects to date.

Ranging from community chipper programs to landscape-scale projects that help create shaded fuel breaks along prominent ridges to protect communities, the vegetation management program is helping to make Sonoma County a safer, more resilient community.

Read more »

Faces of the County

In this edition of our semi-regular series covering public servants across the departments of Sonoma County, we highlight a devoted member of our Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

Name: Nicole Grace

Title: Senior Communications Dispatcher, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office

Years with the County: 20

What is your role during a disaster? I am a dispatcher. My role is always, first and foremost, a dispatcher. All county workers are disaster workers, regardless of their position, but during a major disaster such as the 2017 fires, my responsibility is to the dispatch center. It is an all-hands-on-deck, emergency staffing situation …

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County overhauls approach to evacuation hubs, emergency shelters during disasters

Before the devastating October 2017 wildfires, mass evacuations were relatively uncommon in Sonoma County. Since then, county leaders have launched a comprehensive initiative to prepare for disasters that occur without warning. Innovations that emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic and recent wildfires have completely changed the way the county Human Services Department activates evacuation hubs and emergency shelters.

“We have learned a lot since 2017, and we’ve worked very hard to be prepared for future disasters,” said Angela Struckmann, director of Human Services. “We’re ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice and serve the public when they need us the most.”

Read more »

County steps up efforts to reduce roadside fire fuels in rural areas

The 1,369 miles of roads in unincorporated Sonoma County provide critical evacuation routes for rural residents during wildfires. Keeping them safe and clear is just one job of the county Department of Transportation and Public Works.

The firestorm caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to public property. Road damage alone, including damage to roads while removing debris left by the fire, was $80 million. Other infrastructure damages, including the cost of removing hazardous trees, totaled $13 million. Repairing the damage – while fortifying public property to withstand future fires – was essential.

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Saving Sonoma County’s four-legged residents

After his Coffey Park home narrowly avoided burning in the Tubbs Fire, Brian Whipple, Sonoma County Animal Services operations manager, experienced the dizzying tempo of days of power outages at the county’s main shelter and weeks of animal rescues in the aftermath of the 2017 firestorm.

Once the emergency subsided, Whipple and the dedicated staff at Animal Services started planning for the future, creating systems to serve more community members faster, saving more animals and being in more places at once during disasters.

Read more »

Regional Parks fosters climate adaptive design, greatly expands fuels management

With more than 16,000 acres of park land to steward, the Regional Parks Department staff have worked constantly since 2017 toward the goal of adapting to climate change. By building up capacity to accomplish critical fuels management projects, prescribed burns, livestock grazing and drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Regional Parks puts in the intentional effort to meet the challenges that were so tragically visited on the county.

Educational outreach is another major effort, as experts in the treasured ecosystems of the county regularly present to the public, lead guided hikes and seek to further develop a communal effort toward climate and wildfire adaptation.

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How the fires led to improvements in the way Sonoma County addresses equity

The Sonoma County Office of Equity was officially formed in 2020, but the seeds of its creation stem from the revelations of inequities that were highlighted during the response to the 2017 fires. Most official messaging at the time was sent out only in English and those in the Latinx, undocumented and monolingual Spanish and Indigenous communities lacked appropriate information to react, to keep their families safe and take advantage of community resources for help. In the aftermath, as the county listened to the community, it became clear that more work was needed to mitigate these shortcomings.

As subsequent disasters struck the county, the importance of the work by the Office of Equity became even clearer and, with the American Rescue Plan Act, the county began investing in those impacted communities.

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Fire Prevention reduces wildfire risk for Sonoma County homes

The Fire Prevention Division of Permit Sonoma continues to expand useful programs such as its Curbside Chipper Program as demand continues to soar.

The lessons learned since 2017 for Fire Prevention have been manifold but still are dwarfed by the growth of awareness that the community now has around the risk of wildfire.

This makes the job of Fire Prevention much simpler. Instead of trying to convince people of the risk, they can now focus on educating county residents on how to lessen it.

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Keeping county workers safe, healthy and informed during disasters

Every county employee has two jobs: the one they are hired for, and the one they can be called upon to fulfill during an emergency.

All public employees are disaster service workers, a designation that obligates them to step forward during an emergency and work where they are most needed for the public good.

Supporting these employees is the job of the county Human Resources Department.

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County takes steps to support agriculture, keep farmworkers safe during evacuations

The challenge quickly became clear during the 2017 wildfires: Sonoma County needed new rules that would keep farmworkers safe while providing local grape growers, ranchers and other agricultural companies some type of access to their properties during a disaster. The county Department of Agriculture, Weights & Measures coordinated with emergency management officials, the county Office of Equity, and local law enforcement to launch an initiative to support the county’s ag operators while protecting  employees and the public. 

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Economic Development Board helped chart course for economic recovery after fires

In the wake of the 2017 fires, the Economic Development Board built recovery plans for the local economy that helped the community get back on its feet.

Between the facilitation of millions of dollars in disaster recovery loans and grants, the EDB also spearheaded critical initiatives to encourage local spending and boosted vulnerable industries with funding and marketing support.

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Legal advocates for disaster preparedness, response & recovery

The 2017 wildfires underscored the need for new policies, at the local and state level, to protect the public. But who ensures those policies comply with the law and, when necessary, advocates for them in courtrooms and regulatory hearings?

Meet the Sonoma County Counsel’s Office. The office, which provides legal advice and representation to the Board of Supervisors and county agencies, played a critical role in shaping the county’s response to the 2017 fires while helping local and state officials craft new measures to fortify the county against future disasters.

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Emergency information website offers central hub before, during, after disasters

Emergency preparedness, response and recovery website SoCoEmergency.org centralizes critical information through its thoughtful navigation and streamlined approach to vital information.

Developed and maintained by the county’s website team and built up since the Tubbs and Nuns fires, the site has grown 4,900 percent in four years.

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Child Support Services implemented broad changes, many of which stay relevant today

The Department of Child Support Services staff took different measures to help families and parents during the 2017 wildfires, including temporarily modifying child support orders, providing resources and services to affected families, and helping families who had lost their homes complete the process to be included in the PG&E settlement.

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