At a webinar hosted by Priscilla Abercrombie from Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies (COPE) Fitch Mountain and fourth district supervisor James Gore, individuals from across the county’s emergency preparedness and response sectors came together to provide information on the upcoming fire season and how to be ready.
While some of the talk was a retread of well-known recommendations like creating defensible space and home hardening, there were a few points of new interest.
Brian Garcia from the National Weather Service (NWS) gave rather grim findings on the state of dryness in our area, showing that ignition fuels will likely be widespread due to low rainfall, high heat and low humidity.
“The percentage of precipitation that has fallen across Sonoma County for the water year, (shows most of the county) has only seen half of its normal precipitation for the water year, and being that it’s summer, there will likely be no more rain in this water year. So, what we’re looking at is water in the 50% range,” he said. “What we see is more available fuel to burn across your area.
“The NWS meteorological temperature map for next three months show the probability for the western U.S. is to be above average,” he continued. “If we continue to keep up warm and dry, it will suck all the moisture out of the soils and vegetation. Once we get into September, we have above normal signs for wildfire potential and into October it goes up even more.”
Garcia did say they are predicting a La Niña event for the coming winter, but it remains to be seen whether or not Sonoma County will receive the benefit of it, or if it will simply drift farther north.
What is up with Nixle?
During the webinar there were multiple questions about Nixle, an app downloaded by a huge percentage of the population in the wake of the Tubbs Fire as an emergency alert system. Citizens from across the county had noticed a drop off in alerts from Nixle and a few municipalities, including the city of Santa Rosa, had temporarily stopped using it.
Sam Wallis, the alert and warning manager for Sonoma County, said that the county’s department of emergency management doesn’t use Nixle very much, and that it’s up to individual jurisdictions to decide what they want to put out.
Nixle, which operates by sending out text and email messages during emergencies, has become a victim of its own success, Wallis said.
“It has so many subscribers, but they (Nixle) are not paid by subscribers, they are paid a flat rate by each jurisdiction, but they are charged by phone companies for each individual text sent,” Wallis said. “So, we’re beginning to see changing terms of service with public safety agencies. Instead of sending lower level (text) alerts, those may be going to your email instead. You will still receive alerts at highest levels, but so far, we’ve not received a lot of those this year. So, people are not seeing as many Nixles and thinking it’s broken — not true. Rest assured if we’re in a serious event, definitely the Nixle will go out.”
“One of the things that can help with the issues is people loading the Nixle app” said Cyndi Foreman from the Sonoma County Fire District. “The alert messages will not come through as an SMS or text message, they will come as push notifications, and that saves them those charges. But we will be having to take a hard look at Nixle in the future and how we can have a better working relationship without a massive increase in cost.”
Wallis outlined the various other alert methods available within the county, including the ones used by the county itself to assess risks.
“At the county level it starts with situational awareness. Before we send alerts have to know what’s going on, where the fire is and where it’s going,” Wallis said. “Luckily, we have a robust fire camera system that gives us early situational awareness.
“Once we do that, our commitment is to not just an alert, but using multiple systems. In 2017, we learned relying on one way to communicate gave us a single point of failure. When the time comes, we want to pull a bunch of arrows out of our quiver,” he concluded.
Wallis recommended everyone sign up for SoCo Alert and consider buying a National Weather Service (NWS)/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) radio. Several municipalities and the county also use hi-lo sirens to alert residents about evacuation as they drive through neighborhoods.
“But, I can’t emphasize enough, the but most important component is neighbor to neighbor,” Wallis said. “Don’t assume your neighbor has received alert, if you check in, it helps to magnify our message.”
Garcia from the NWS explained how the NOAA radios work: “The short of the long is we issue warnings that will turn on the radio. The weather radio sits passively until triggered, and those triggers only occur for short fuse warning like flash floods or tornados or severe thunderstorms.”
While he said that red flag warnings wouldn’t trigger the radio, fire would, and because it has battery backup and connects over FM frequencies it is not dependent on either power or cell towers to work.
Public safety power shutoffs
According to Gore, PG&E does have a requirement to clear vegetation around its lines, but that undergrounding of lines is still not required, hence public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) will likely continue.
“What we experienced last year was very difficult for the community,” said Gore. “And that’s a nice word to use. In our assessment, even though I support shutdowns, the work needed in developing a smart grid is a mandate we need. However, PG&E does have plan to deploy large, trailer-size generators to substations in order to keep the power going.
“There were issues with regulations under the Clean Air Act (that had to be resolved), but people can expect less widespread outages because of that,” he finished, adding such generators would be in place in Bodega Bay, Cloverdale, Windsor and Healdsburg ahead of time and ready for use.
According to Gore, each generator is approximately the size of a shipping container and produce 1.15 MHz of power.
“It will make a short-term support network to keep the lights on when they shut down the grid,” he said.
What about COVID?
Without question, the greatest unknown in all of the planning will be the status of the COVID-19 outbreak should a natural disaster come calling.
“We’re committed to an even more robust messaging for this COVID environment,” said Wallis. “We understand we have to get it out as early as possible as go into red flag warning and make sure we have somebody able to launch alerts so as soon as fire breaks out, we’re working on messaging.”
Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase was also on the webinar and pointed out some difficult truths about an intersection between the pandemic and natural disasters, especially considering the rising rates of infection and death in Sonoma County.
“This is something Sonoma County has never faced before, we’re already in the midst of pandemic, trying to observe a lot of things — like social distancing — that are more difficult to observe if we have another disaster like a wildfire,” Mase said.
Mase outlined the current worrying uptick in cases, and the fact the county is quickly approaching the parameters to be returned to the governor’s watch list and perhaps even be forced back down the reopening ladder. Combining that with a potential mass evacuation event like that which occurred during the Kincade Fire and it gets complicated in a hurry.
“With that setting, where we are trying hard to observe mitigation measures, it will be even more challenging if have to deal with a fire. We need to remind people of the basics they need to be prepared if required to evacuate,” she said. “You need to have all essential medication packed and if an evacuation is called, you also need to follow the measures in place for COVID.”
That said, Mase was clear that the impending threat of a wildfire must and should overtake COVID-19 measure in the short term. “The key thing is to ensure we’re safe,” she said. “If an evacuation has to happen because of wildfire, that emergency must take first priority. But if we have shelters, we must try to maintain physical and social distance, ensure plenty of general hygiene measures are in place, ask people to wear facial coverings, which is also helpful for smoke, so it could be a win-win for COVID and in the event of a fire.”
Abercrombie said there may be a role for COPE to play as well.
“In evacuation centers COPE leaders can tell people to bring facial coverings and hand sanitizers. They should be in your go bag and extra masks would be a good idea,” she said.
Mase added that law enforcement and public health are all preparing for instances of having to deal with both come the fall.