Though there are areas for improvement, the general response to the brush fire on Fitch Mountain Aug. 20 was good, according to several involved.
Healdsburg Fire Chief Jason Boaz said, “We had excellent coordination and excellent response with our partner agencies and CalFire.”
The fire was toward the base of Fitch Mountain and temporarily caused a mandatory evacuation for those living up on Sunset, Valley View and Benjamin Way. The cause of the fire was determined to be accidental: a spark from working on a fence to house goats ignited the blaze. The goats are there to help curb vegetation growth.
Boaz was particularly happy with how the Nixle alert system played into communicating the fire danger and evacuation to residents.
“We did evacuations for the first time using the city’s Nixle account. All the feedback that I’ve gotten from that so far was that went very well,” he said.
Boaz did say in the future, he wanted to provide more clarity in the messages for the specific areas to be evacuated and the alert system would continue to be fine tuned.
“It’s difficult in the heat of the moment when you’re trying to get something out like that and there’s multiple people involved to get out really specific and accurate information,” he said.
Boaz said he has heard good things from the public in response to the fire, and said the department has been working closely with local Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies (COPE) groups. There are three such groups on Fitch Mountain, with one keeping things organized and communicated to the others.
Priscilla Abercrombie is the head organizer for the Fitch Mountain COPE, which helps keep communication open with the neighborhood COPEs in the evacuated areas. Benjamin Way and Sunset are the two other groups.
“I’m kind of the leader of the Fitch Mountain area,” Abercrombie said.
Each COPE has its own GroupMe mass text account, which is used to provide early alerts from neighbors when smoke is first noticed. Fire responders are also part of the groups.
“Fortunately we had power, so we had cell coverage,” Abercrombie said.
Abercrombie said the fire was a “wake-up call” for many residents who may not have been as ready as they believed.
“The thing for me was just like they say, total deer in the headlights around, oh, my God, what is it that I need to grab right now?” Abercrombie said, adding that she’ll be making a checklist for things beyond her go-bag.
Terry Leach is the leader of the Sunset COPE. She said that the method of communication could still be improved. The Sunset COPE originally used a group text before GroupMe.
“No matter how many times we told people to use the new modality for communication, the reality was that when it came time, a lot of our neighbors had not downloaded the app, they hadn’t joined in. So I found myself texting with the old one and texting people with the new one,” she said.
She also said discipline as to when it is appropriate to use the group message was an issue.
“One of our neighbors after the evacuation was canceled sent out a text. ‘Fire. Fire on the mountain.’ Which completely alarmed all of our neighbors again, but he was making a joke,” Leach said.
One serendipitous event was the regularly scheduled Sunset COPE meeting the following Sunday, which Leach’s husband had just finished putting up signs for.
At the meeting, the GroupMe app was gone over specifically. Leach said that her husband, who serves as webmaster for the communication, added 51 names.
“It can’t just be us alerting our neighbors. We might be gone,” she said. “If they smell smoke, we don’t want to wait for a Nixle.”
In addition to the digital communication, neighbors were encouraged to blare their horns as they went down the mountain to signal they were evacuating.
The actual fighting of the fire went well, too, Boaz said.
“It was our engine and one engine from Sonoma County Fire District did what we call a progressive hose lay around the right flank of the fire up and around the fire. They hooked it pretty quickly,” Boaz said.
Boaz also credits CalFire’s helicopter 104 for the assist in providing multiple bucket drops. The aircraft used for the fire all happened to be on base, Boaz said, which led to a great air response time.
The residents and property owners did their part as well, Boaz said.
“We were all nervous it was going to get into the houses,” he said. “But a lot of the homeowners up there, I got to give them credit, they’ve done a lot of vegetation management. They’ve trimmed up the trees, they mowed the grass. And a lot of the work the homeowners did up there helped us significantly in stopping the spread of the fire. I can’t stress the importance of that enough.
“There were basically some fire breaks in the middle of the hillside there which helped us … When we talk about vegetation management, it really does make a difference.”
Abercrombie said that there is still room to improve for mitigation.
“The county still hasn’t come in this year and cleared vegetation away from the roads yet, not on this side anyway. I think the city has done a better job on their side of the mountain,” she said.
Abercrombie noted that on the other side from where the fire was, the community is different and needs more fuel reduction.
“On this side of the mountain it’s a different animal. It’s a completely different culture,” she said, noting the higher amount of summer homes. “We need to go deeper, we need more mitigation.”
Abercrombie did note that communication with the county has been good, and blames funding more for the lack of proper fuel removal.
“Our vegetation management is poorly funded,” she said. “We’ve got the inspections underway but we don’t have the money to enforce.”
In addition, Abercrombie said that many people move to the mountain specifically for the more natural, wilder environment that comes with a high volume of vegetation, but that an emphasis on safety needs to come first.
Boaz did note that if the wind had shifted, the story could have been different, as a nearby drainage ditch would’ve provided more dense fuel for the fire to climb the mountain.
Time to go
According to Boaz, the police department is responsible for the evacuation side of the response.
Department officers were going door to door in the affected neighborhoods to ensure everyone knew to get out, while Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputies were staged at the Villa Chanticleer to assist if needed.
Sgt. Luis Rodriguez, with the Healdsburg Police Department, was part of the evacuation effort.
“I think it went pretty smoothly. We had a lot of resources from fire agencies and outside law enforcement agencies,” he said. “We had a pretty organized evacuation.”
Rodriguez said he felt the residents were fairly knowledgeable as to what to do.
“I think everybody in the area saw the smoke and the firefighting efforts that were going on, so everyone was either getting ready to self evacuate or were very cooperative in helping get each other out.”
One example of neighbors helping out were two Sunset COPE members who knew to help a neighbor who was 91 and on hospice get down their stairs, according to Leach.
Rodriguez said that the police department is going to get together with other agencies soon to discuss the response.
“I think people are planning a little better. It’s always good to be prepared,” he said.
One of the concerns Leach said was brought up on the evacuation at the Sunset COPE meeting was city trucks working at the top of Sunset blocking the road.
“Also, a lot of non-essential city personnel showed up, also creating a logjam,” Leach said.
Those concerns were then brought from the COPE meeting to the city via fire response leaders at the meeting.
Leach said she also saw an issue with keeping information up-to-date.
“I got noticed that the evacuation was upgraded from advisory to mandatory and I sent that out. My husband was packing our dogs into the car and a policeman walked up and said it was only advisory. My husband said, ‘No, we just got an alert,’” she said.
She said she understood the gap in updates and likened it to a kind of “fog of war,” noting that officers may not have time to check their text messages. She said it shows the importance of neighborhood communication on top of the Nixles.
Leach said that people not on the mountain can still take away the lesson of the importance of a COPE group, and should form one or join an existing group in their neighborhoods.
“Even with some hiccups, it can be a really important thing,” she said.
The fire response was ultimately led by Boaz, with Healdsburg Fire Marshall Linda Collister and Geyserville Fire Protection District Marshall Turbeville leading before he arrived. Boaz said that working with multiple departments has gone smoothly, and they’ve learned from past wildfires.
“I think after the 2017 wildfires, the way we respond to fires has changed a little bit. We kind of tilt the response toward the highest priority fire in the region. And we got a really big response right off the bat,” he said. “This fire was completely inside the city limits, but it was in what we call our mutual threat zone, so it includes a larger response from CalFire and our neighboring agencies.”
The mutual threat zone is an area with particularly high fire threat, Boaz said, which in this case includes Fitch Mountain and some of the surrounding area.
Since the fire was handled quickly and under existing mutual aid agreements, no fiscal impact report will be generated as no irregular costs were incurred.