Supes say county was more prepared this time for disaster, hail fire crews for teamwork
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors held an emergency meeting on Oct. 31 to ratify and approve the emergency declaration and to establish the Kincade Fire Disaster Fund, which will fund initial emergency response services and activities.
Emergency declarations allow counties and cities to receive funding for disaster recovery from federal entities like FEMA.
The disaster fund allows for the adjustment of the county’s 2019-20 fiscal budget to establish appropriations of $2.5 million from the economic uncertainty balance in order to finance initial response activities and services.
According to county finance officials, Kincade Fire response expenditures have amounted to $5 million, $2.1 million in labor, $2.5 in mutual aid and $425,000 in other expenses. Figures do not include damage assessments.
Labor and other expenses in relation to the public safety power shutoff amount to $1 million.
In terms of recovery, the county has set up a debris management team. Damage assessment will begin and a local assistance center for those affected by the fire will be set up at the Healdsburg Community Center. The county hopes to open the center by Monday, Nov. 4
The board also heard reports from several CalFire officials on the status of the fire, which as of Thursday morning, Oct. 31, is at 60% containment and has been held at 76,825 acres.
The overall message from county officials, first responders and fire crews was that the unified team effort from mutual aid and local fire departments worked well and was critical in fighting the fire.
Jeff Ike, one of the CalFire incident commanders, said, “One team, one fight and that is exactly what we did together … This was one of the most complex incidents in my career and in California history. How did we do it? We started together and we will end together. It has been a long, tough battle but we’ll continue to stick together.”
Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine echoed those sentiments.
“This was a win because it was a team effort and we were well prepared across the county,” Heine said. “This is a good example of how teamwork works.”
Despite being well prepared and pre-positioning thousands of firefighters, CalFire Information Officer for incident team 6 Johnathan Cox said there were three major challenges in fighting the fire.
“The real challenge we had was making those decisions on when and where to evacuate. The second one was we had a rapidly evolving incident, also we were contending with the PSPS,” Cox said.
He said a bright spot was the amount of compliance from the public on heeding mandatory evacuations.
“We are eternally grateful that they heeded the evacuation warning,” Heine said.
Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said he visited many shelters over the past few days and seeing the impact it had on residents weighed heavily on his shoulders, however, he said he still believes they made the right decision to evacuate more than 180,000 residents.
Karen Peeves, director of human services for Sonoma County, said 20 shelters were set up, capacity peaking at 4,850.
Even though Windsor and Healdsburg residents have been allowed to return to their homes, many are returning to no gas or electricity and are without heat in cold weather conditions.
This was a major pain point for Sonoma County District 5 Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who stressed that for vulnerable populations in her district like young children and the elderly, this can be quite difficult.
Richard Hadley, a government relations representative for PG&E said each home has to have its gas valve turned off, the line has to be checked and recharged before they can meet with customers, turn on the valve and relight pilot lights.
He said two incident teams have been established to handle the PSPS event and to check gas lines in burned areas and clear them as safe. He said all gas lines were cleared in burn areas.
A total of 23,000 customers are still without power. Electric restoration is hoped to be completed between 4 and 9 p.m. Oct. 31, according to Hadley.
He said gas lines have been relit for Cloverdale and Forestville and the utility hopes to relight some 8,000 customers without gas in Windsor and Healdsburg by Nov. 1.
The overwhelming feeling from the board of supervisors was that, compared to the 2017 wildfires, the county was much more prepared, saying that the county’s mantra, “Sonoma Strong,” is now “Sonoma Ready.”
Sonoma County District 3 Supervisor Shirlee Zane said the 2017 fires were like an apocalyptic nightmare. While the Kincade Fire was like a bad dream, the script of that dream was able to change and did not turn into another nightmare, she said.
“I have never been so proud that we did work so well together,” Zane said.
Sonoma County District 1 Supervisor Susan Gorin offered an emotional thanks to firefighters for their work, especially in protecting the old burn zone of Sonoma Valley.
“The difference between two years ago and now is profound. We were more prepared and we are resilient ... and I am in awe,” Gorin said.
Gorin expressed concern for those in the Sonoma Valley who survived the 2017 fires and are now affected financially from the power shutoff. She asked what could be done to establish a federal emergency zone.
Chris Godley, of the Sonoma County Emergency Management Division, said while the county will have a state assistance grant of $479,000, “we’re not there for that level of aid.”