Our reporter joins Supervisor James Gore in the fire zone
James Gore’s lost 10 pounds since Sunday. It’s 7:45 a.m. on Friday, Oct.13 and he’s driving south on US 101 to pick up his wife, Elizabeth, before heading to a series of press interviews and meetings. He’s just wrapped up the latest in a series of Facebook video updates on the Pocket Fire with Cal Fire Geyserville Chief Marshall Turbeville in Geyserville. The fire leapt over bulldozed firebreaks the day before, threatening the Dry Creek Rancheria and River Rock Casino. Now the forecast is calling for high winds overnight. “Let’s get shit done,” Gore says to Turbeville, smiling.
“I’m in the role of crisis management and, dare I say, a reporter getting people the information that they need,” he says. Before Gore started doing interviews with Turbeville on the Pocket Fire, there was little information available on the blaze. Ordinarily, it would have been headline news throughout the county, but with the Tubbs and Nuns Fire, and several more fires burning in Mendocino, Solano and Napa counties, it took more than 24 hours before Cal Fire started issuing regular reports on the status of the fire burning in the hills east of Geyserville. In that time, it grew from 200 acres to more than 1,800 acres.
His video interviews with Turbeville are getting more than 50,000 views each. Praise for the 39-year-old’s efforts is effusive on social media.
“Thank you so much for these amazing updates!” wrote Gina Kirkley. “I mostly feel uninformed and these really give me some peace of mind. Thank you for caring!”
Gore has been getting little sleep over the past few days, since the fires broke out. The first neighborhoods to be devastated by the Tubbs Fire were in his district, the unincorporated communities of Mark West, Larkfield and Wikiup.
As of press time, the Tubbs Fire was 44 percent contained though it covered a huge swath of the county at more than 35,270 acres. By comparison, at 10,996 acres, and 5 percent containment, the Pocket Fire seems almost inconsequential. It’s being held in the hills to the east of Geyserville, but this is steep terrain, tangled with old growth and rich in the fuels that wildland fires feast upon. Between them, the Tubbs and Pocket fires bracket Gore’s district and he’s spending his days racing up and down the county.
James picks up Elizabeth and heads for Rohnert Park, to an interview on KRCB with Congressman Jared Huffman. Huffman and Congressman Mike Thompson have been regular fixtures at the daily operations briefings and press conferences.
They’re making sure people are being accountable and helping out with the federal level of the crisis response, Gore says, but he’s eschewing the appearances at press conferences in favor of more direct communication.
“I talked to Mitch McConnell yesterday, and Kevin McCarthy,” he says. “I don’t care if you’re a Republican, a Democrat or an ‘independican,’ we’ll talk to whoever. But it’s not about the big names.”
Before the fire update with Turbeville, James had approached four men in the parking lot of the Geyserville Market, pickers who couldn’t get to the vineyards due to the evacuation orders and roadblocks on the east side of town.
Gore launched into another Facebook video with them, speaking in rapid, slightly accented Spanish, something he picked up in the Peace Corps in Bolivia. He learned they had worked with his father, a vineyard manager in the area. One of them, Jose Envernal, reflects, “I don’t know what’s worse, maybe burning or not working - because we have to work.”
Elizabeth drives us around the county in their Ford Escape. The trunk is stuffed with family photo albums and other necessities in case they have to evacuate their Healdsburg home that’s been in an evacuation advisory zone since the day prior. Every so often, when the car brakes, a small landslide of scrapbooks and other mementos tumbles into the back seat.
Elizabeth says she and James talk every morning, around 5 a.m. about whether they should get their two young children out of the area. They’re already sheltering two other families at their house, some cousins who lost their home in Coffey Park and others who’ve been displaced by the evacuation orders elsewhere in the county.
Throughout the day, James is juggling multiple appointments, issues and several cell phones. He even had me drive his car for part of the day, so he could manage incoming and outgoing phone calls.
After the interview at KRCB, there’s 20 minutes of downtime to work on social media, line up more calls and then it’s off to the PG&E emergency base camp, also in Rohnert Park. The base is on a farm, sprawled over 80 acres, with room to increase that footprint if necessary, according to spokesperson Deanna Contrera. There are already 1,300 admin staff, linemen and gas crews operating out of the base camp, and that number is expected to reach 2,000 by the weekend. James attends a briefing with PG&E CEO Geisha Williams but is itching to get back to his district, he says.
As he leaves PG&E, James coordinates with County Planning Commissioner and vineyard manager Cameron Mauritson, and other agriculture leaders, on the status of the ongoing grape harvest. On the one hand, Gore is concerned that there are still millions of dollars on the vines in the county, on the other, safety is paramount.
“The sharks are swarming around to point out bad farmers,” he says on the phone to one of the cadre of agriculture industry people he’s trying to organize. “We have to come out quick and deploy or get eaten alive.”
Later, in another call, he cautions Mauritson.
“If there’s a farmer worried about $100,000 in grapes, he could get hit with a class action suit for millions and he’ll lose,” he says, adding that pickers will need to be equipped with N95 masks and be thoroughly out of harm’s way.
James arrives at the 1 p.m. operations briefing at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Some of the 2,500 National Guardsmen deployed to the North Bay are stationed here, helping with security and community support. The shelters at the fairgrounds are being manned and organized by Red Cross staff.
Elizabeth, who serves on the steering committee of #LakeCountyRising, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rebuilding after the deadly 2015 Valley Fire, says she’s worried that so many volunteers were turned away in the first few days of the fires at the shelters. “The Red Cross will leave eventually,” she says. “There are at least 12 months of recovery ahead of us on this effort.”
We’ll need every willing person, she says.
Near the operations briefing, where Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom stands shoulder to shoulder with county supervisors, congressmen, police and fire officials, James pulls aside a man in rumpled Cal Fire coveralls. They pore over a map on the trunk of a squad car, then he comes over.
“I just learned more from him in 10 minutes than I could from this,” he says pointing at the briefing. “He just flew over the active fires in my district, and now I know exactly what’s going on.”
James returns to this concept of “constant imperfect progress” often. It’s a slogan of sorts, one he’s used in non-crisis times but now he seems to be embracing the motto with his unpolished direct communications with his constituents.
Then he’s off again, pulling up to Radio Lazer off Skylane Boulevard. There, he does an on-air interview in Spanish, along with former Fifth District Supervisor Efren Carrillo and host Miguel Angel Ruiz. James is concerned about undocumented Latinos in Sonoma County being too scared of immigration authorities to come in to evacuation shelters. There are rumors of an encampment along the coast. “If I could find it, I’d go out there,” he says.
Carrillo has been absent from the public sphere since Lynda Hopkins won his seat last November. He’d left public office under a pall of scandal, but James had pulled him into a community organizing meeting the day before.
“I’m here because he called me,” Carrillo says.
“We need him right now,” says James. “He has a vast amount of experience in how the community works and he is a native Spanish speaker.”
After the interview and more Facebook live videos, James heads to Larkfield. He drives through roadblocks into the evacuated areas of Larkfield that had burned to the ground days earlier. He sees the ruins of his childhood home.
Getting out of the car in what used to be Mark West Estates, he pauses, hands held to his face as he surveys the blasted landscape.
“Look at that,” he points to a burned out car, where runnels of bright silver liquid metal running down the driveway have hardened. “Those were aluminum hubcaps. Think it was hot here?”
Nearby, a trio of Contra Costa sheriff’s deputies are flying a drone over the neighborhood. They’re surveying each plot, looking for remains and fire-proof safes, James says.
He leaves, it’s just past 5 p.m., and another wave of Nixle alerts for evacuation advisories have just dropped for Healdsburg.
“It’s time to stop being a Supervisor and be a husband and a dad,” he says. “I’m going to go home and see my babies.”
The next morning, James and Elizabeth post another Facebook video with Turbeville, tracking the fires and getting the word out. Getting shit done.
Originally published on October 14