Cloverdale hosted a debriefing on the Kincade Fire and the public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) last week, where it looked at both the actions taken by the city and the county during the fire and power shutoffs, as well as what the city and community can do to prepare for future disasters.
The Dec. 9 meeting was held at the Citrus Fairgrounds and drew a variety of community members and city staff.
“The Kincade Fire was the largest fire, physically, in Sonoma County history,” said Chris Godley, director of the Sonoma County Department of Emergency Management. “This fire that we just experienced was about as big as it gets inside Sonoma County.”
Godley said that Kincade is the largest fire in California history with no fatalities.
“What’s important about this fire was it occured at a moment where we were in a public safety power shutoff,” Godley said.
“The models that the fire departments were using indicated that this fire had a significant potential for crossing 101 and moving directly through west Sonoma County and taking out Camp Meeker and all of those areas within hours,” he said. “We were looking at a model that made Paradise look small.”
He said that that, combined with the complicated one-way-out roads of west county, were behind the mass evacuation orders during the fire. To alert people to new evacuation orders coming online, the primary method was via wireless alert. However, the power shutoff made those alerts tricky. To compensate for the potential lack of cell reception, county and city police drove through neighborhoods with high-low sirens.
“I likened it to the fact that we were going into this fire with one hand tied behind our back,” Godley said. “When you turn off the power there’s a number of implications. It’s not just the refrigerator where you lose all of your food. We lose a lot of public safety systems as well — most notably our ability to conduct alerts and warnings. Cell towers start going off. We lost the ability for us to potentially pump water into areas, traffic signals. It was outside the norm, this fire, it really was.”
When it came to notifying people of evacuations, Godley said that while the county sent out more alerts than they ever had before, one of the most important tools that people have is knowing their neighbor. Godley urged those in attendance to make sure they check on those around them in situations of emergency, since many older residents may not have cell phones or other types of technology that would otherwise let them know about emergencies.
“There was about a six-hour scenario where I thought we would lose Healdsburg, or half of Windsor or west Sonoma County. It was really that dicey,” he said. “I’ve never been in that position — to really stare at a fire and not know what it’s going to do.”
Though the ripples of the Kincade Fire have been felt countywide, the event that primarily impacted Cloverdale during the week of the fire was the series of both power and gas shutoffs that residents were hit with.
“We’re extremely concerned about how broad the natural gas shutoffs were with PG&E,” Godley said, indicating that he questions whether or not they chose to shut off more gas lines than they should have.
According to City Manager David Kelley, the city was first alerted to the gas shutoff not by PG&E, but by people posting about it on social media. After that, the city contacted the county’s Emergency Operation Center, which hadn’t heard anything about the shutoff prior to the call.
“We heard that they consulted with CalFire, but there’s a big question whether they really did or not,” Kelley said. “We think it was kind of a unilateral decision without any notification to the county or the city that it was getting turned off. It was quite a surprise to us.”
While the bulk of the meeting was devoted to addressing how Cloverdale responded to the fire and power shutoff, the tail-end focused on how to move forward.
“We can’t forget that we were dealing with two different incidents here,” Police Chief Jason Ferguson said.
The city was in the midst of the power shutoff when the fire started, and the city’s crisis management shifted from dealing with power and preparing for power restoration to preparing evacuation routes in case Kincade shifted north.
“While all this was taking place, we were making evacuation processes,” Ferguson said. “The reason you didn’t know about that was because … you have to be real sure that it’s time for an evacuation advisory or a mandatory evacuation.
“As this started to unfold and the developments of the fire heading south, it started pushing some of those evacuees into our community. It also started pushing some of those people trying to go south that came from the north into our community. They couldn’t go south and they weren’t necessarily trying to go north, or they didn’t have gas.”
While Cloverdale was settled with folks evacuating north instead of south and southbound travelers, it wasn’t declared an official evacuation center and therefore wasn’t privy to the same resources.
“I think the benefit of this community was having groups like the Lions Club do what they did to help citizens as best as they possibly could,” Ferguson said.
Moving forward, Ferguson said that the city has upgraded to a fuller version of Nixle that will allow the city to provide more Nixle alerts to citizens signed up for it. The city is also working on putting high-low sirens into police vehicles and getting back-up generators for city locations such as city hall. He said that they’re also in the midst of working on evacuation plans, in case residents need to evacuate in an emergency.
During the power shutoff and fires, local organizations stepped up to make sure community members were fed — service groups gathered at the Citrus Fair and cooked up food (some of which was donated from local businesses) for those affected. For those who wanted a reprieve from the dropping temperatures in the latter half of the week, the city got Sonoma County Transit warming buses to park in front of city hall.
Going forward, those in attendance said that more systems need to be in place to aid the community’s more vulnerable populations (non-English speakers, elderly, ill, etc.) in case of an emergency.
Suggestions were also made about putting together regular meetings between service groups and nonprofits to help familiarize one another with the services offered by local groups, so as to not duplicate efforts during emergencies. It was also suggested that a phone tree of community leaders be created to help form a network of people and organizations should they need to band together to provide services during an emergency.