A mix of triumph and trepidation filled Guerneville School’s gym last Saturday when nearly 200 people showed up for a disaster workshop on October’s wildfire and potential future mass evacuations for western Sonoma County.
The crowd applauded first responders for containing the approximately 120-square-mile blaze at Windsor but crowd gratitude was tempered with fears that wildfires, evacuations and power shutoffs are becoming the new normal for Northern California’s fire season.
“Do we have to go through this every year,” asked a Forestville businesswoman who closed up shop and evacuated when her power was shut off on Oct. 26
“Why on earth did you evacuate so much of Sonoma County?” said the caption on an aerial photograph showing a plume of smoke blowing from Geyserville toward a large section of the Sonoma Coast. “Check out the bird’s-eye view,” said the caption. “Now you know.”
“When something like this happens you can’t just go, ‘We did a great job and we’re ready for the next one,’” said Sonoma County sheriff’s Lt. Mike Raasch. “We have to plan for the next one now, because there probably will be a next one.”
Raasch said a meeting of emergency responders this week is scheduled “to figure out what went well and what we can improve on,” during the October disaster.
“I’m not going to say everything went perfect,” said Raasch, “because it sure didn’t.”
Emergency planners hope to come up with a new “grid map” with numbered evacuation zones that the public can use to see what zone they’re in and where evacuation orders are in effect.
Compared with the Tubbs fire that swept Sonoma County in 2017 and burned more than 5,500 houses, this year “We had a little bit more time,” said Raasch, regarding the Kincade blaze battle.
“We had God on our side,” Raasch said. “We had Mother Nature on our side and great firefighters, some 5,100 of them.”
Approximately 187,000 people were evacuated, said Raasch.
When the evacuation order came down on Saturday night to start getting people out of Santa Rosa to Forestville, Guerneville and Bodega Bay, “My heart went into my shoes,” said Raasch, who was in charge of the operation. “I’m like, ‘Wow, is the fire predicted to go that far and that fast?’”
But with record high offshore winds forecast and the possibility of the fire jumping across Highway 101 “We did not want mass pandemonium,” said Raasch. “We didn’t want gridlocked traffic.”
State Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nichols said the evacuation decision was not made lightly and succeeded because it was phased in and people cooperated.
“We knew that wind event was coming,” said Nichols. “So we were able to work with our sheriff’s department partners, California Highway Patrol, emergency management, and bring all the players together Friday night.”
“This initially was Windsor and Healdsburg for sure, and then ultimately the Russian River area — 190,000 plus-or-minus evacuees,” said Nichols.
That decision “allowed us the opportunity to orderly evacuate Healdsburg and Windsor first, to get them off the 101 corridor, and with the idea that they were going to be the first impacted if that fire got out of control.”
If stronger winds had prevailed there was a real possibility of the fire spreading west along the Russian River corridor following Westside Road, said Nichols.
Under the right conditions the fire could have become a “running crown fire” burning across the top of the redwood forest westward from the Hacienda area, said Nichols, who urged residents to remain ready for another wildfire.
“The take away from this event was that it was a huge win for the fire services and first responders as a whole, but it’s not going to be that case all the time. So we ask you to remain vigilant in your preparedness for evacuations,” said Nichols.