2017 fire storm

Be prepared to take care of yourself is the disaster preparedness message

The 2017 fire storm that licked up to the edges of Windsor and destroyed vast portions of neighboring Santa Rosa, followed by the record breaking Camp Fire in 2018, have caused municipalities around the state to re-examine and update their emergency plans.

Windsor is no different, but the town leaders want their citizens to be aware that they need to take responsibility for their own safety and care in an emergency.

The Times sat down with Cyndi Foreman, fire prevention officer for the Sonoma County Fire District (SCFD), Matt Gustafson, deputy chief of SCFD, Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli and Windsor Town Manager Ken MacNab to discuss lessons learned, plans made and how the people of Windsor should prepare to help themselves in the event of a massive natural disaster.

While fire is at the forefront of most people’s minds, the reality is that Windsor could also be subjected to earthquake, flood and heat emergencies. Windsor’s emergency plan, known as the Local Hazard Mitigation Plan (LHMP) is prepared for all eventualities, but after the 2017 fires, changes were made to it and current plans encompass a whole range of potential challenges.

Lessons learned

The first and biggest takeaway from the fires in 2017 was the desperate need for better, and more importantly, redundant, forms of communication and connectivity. When Comcast and Xfinity went down during the fires, it left not only citizens blind, but the town and emergency services as well.

“Here in the station we struggled as much as the public did during those hours when there was limited connectivity,” Foreman said. “We also struggled, so it was something we felt was a priority following the fires.”

“Comcast Xfinity did go down so it was challenging to communicate with each other and the public,” MacNab said. “But, we’ve secured redundant systems with a contract for satellite communications. We may not be able to communicate with everybody but will be able to get critical information through the county and our internal communications.”

Both the town and the fire district will be using this satellite system in the event of a loss of connectivity.

“We put all our eggs in one basket so to speak, and the internet we relied on, all the things we relied on, that have become commonplace are great until they don’t work. So now we have back ups,” Gustafson said.

Similarly, in the name of redundancy it was decided to create a backup Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The primary EOC is located in the fire house on Old Redwood Highway, but it was determined that fire or earthquake emergencies could lead to damage to the facility or it getting cutoff from employees attempting to access it. So, a secondary facility has been created at the public works department across from Windsor High School.

“The other thing we learned, if you think where fire station one is, close to the eastern edge of town, (where in 2017 the fires came closest to) and at one point where there was a discussion of evacuating the station,” said MacNab. “In realizing that, we’ve set up a second operational center. In part because public works has a lot of responsibility in a disaster, but it could also be alternative location for the EOC.”

The secondary EOC is diametrically opposite the main facility, which is done to keep at least one of them operational during an emergency: opposite side of the Highway 101, opposite ends of town.

“And it’s right across from a main evacuation center, too,” said Foppoli, referring to the WHS gym.

Foreman also pointed to the greater information about the meaning of Red Flag days, including the use of actual red flags outside of fire stations, and increased patrols for fires or flare-ups on those days have become part of the norm.

In addition, the need for neighbors and communities to come together and help each other becomes critical.

While many, or even most, of the lessons learned form the 2017 fire storm revolve around communications, the biggest takeaway is the need for the citizens to be prepared to take responsibility for their own safety and care during and the hours and days after a disaster.

Communication

Besides the physical breakdown of communication during the fires, due to the Comcast outage, the town and other authorities had to learn about meeting their citizens where they are and also how quickly misinformation can spread.

“(We learned) that people are looking for information, but they were not necessarily on our website,” MacNab said. “The council and town are starting to use Facebook and that is one way people are going to get updates in future emergencies. We also now have a Nextdoor account, and we are intending to communicate through Nextdoor and Facebook. And, most councilmembers have Facebook and communications will be coordinated with council.”

“One thing we learned from a community standpoint is that when people are concerned about an emergency and trying to figure out what to do, they reach out to their electeds, not administrators,” Foppoli said, adding that during the fires he and then-mayor Deborah Fudge posted video updates regularly on their Facebook pages and in short order they were getting 10,000 views.  

But in the early, hectic days of the fires, it was challenging to get all the various agencies and platforms on the same page, according to Foreman. Going forward, SCFD will be using the various emergency alert systems for their communications.

“Nixle is really one of our biggest tools and that’s another thing that we implemented shortly after the fires with our new fire chief Mark Heine,” Foreman said. “It was really important to him that we look into having a way we can directly connect with our community and Nixle was the way we did that. We had received some donations following the fires and we used that money towards purchasing our own Nixle account.”

“Nixle is used in a ‘ready, set, go’ format for us,” Gustafson added. “So we could send out Nixles that are community awareness type things, such as there is a controlled burn or there’s a fire in Napa and we’re getting drifts, something we want to inform people about but it’s not necessarily an emergency. The next step through Nixle would be we can send out ‘get ready, there’s something that’s building, there’s a problem that may affect you.’ That’s more the ready-set portion of it. And then go time would be evacuation, which would also be sent through the SoCo Alert system, which would be like an Amber Alert which will take over your phone.

“(SoCo Alert) is an impending issue that is going to affect you more than likely,” he continued. “SoCo alerts don’t go out very often, hardly at all, but Nixle goes out quite a bit because we’re trying to keep the public informed and get them ready.”

It is strongly recommended that citizens sign up for a variety of alerts that cover a variety of departments and emergencies. See the sidebar for more information.

However, the trick is that these alerts generally require the use of a smartphone or consistent internet access, something for which the most vulnerable populations — such as the elderly or the indigent — are least likely to have access to. The “tech gap” is an ongoing concern for emergency planning.

While the Emergency Broadcast System is still in full effect for both radio and television broadcasts, those can be knocked out with relative ease, especially in case of earthquakes and fires. 

“It is 100% a generational issue,” Foreman said. “Those are the folks that need to have a hardline telephone, not a cable.”

“Reverse 911 helps a lot of people,” added Gustafson. “One technology is not taking over for another right now, and they do not take the place of some simple things like AM radio and hard line phones.”

“I think that was a lesson learned from this incident also, is that there is this generational gap and those folks need the education, but how do we make sure that they are staying informed because they don’t use social media, they don’t use modern technology so how do we keep those folks informed?” Foreman asked.

“That’s a challenge,” she continued. “People have to take responsibility for how they stay connected and that’s really on them. We put the information out and people are going to do what they do with it and again that’s really holding people accountable for how they stay informed and how they get educated on how they stay informed.”

Preparation

The No. 1 takeaway for all citizens is they must be prepared to help themselves in case of an emergency. Foreman and Gustafson pointed out that PG&E emergency shutoffs could be as long as five days, with no additional stress from an active emergency, and recommend that people have emergency provisions for at least five days.

MacNab and Foppoli recommend certain populations consider being prepared to care for themselves for up to 10 days.

“Be prepared for any disaster to strike,” Foreman said. “We’ve got the education, it’s all about what we do with it. People need to be aware that we have six firefighters on duty in Windsor on any given day. So, can those six adequately care for the population of Windsor when disaster strikes? Absolutely not. We need people to be self-sufficient. FEMA says have supplies for 72 hours, I say go above and beyond that.”

“When we have an earthquake, we can easily become landlocked here in Windsor,” she continued. “We have many tributaries, creeks and such, and we have the Russian River. We have overpasses, we have bridges everywhere. So the likelihood of evacuation routes being impassable after an earthquake is extremely high. You’ve got to have a backup plan and know of some areas of safe refuge like the high school, big parking lots like Wal-Mart and Home Depot, areas where help will be available if you need it.”

MacNab and Foppoli say the town is working on examining the best practices, but that citizens taking responsibility for themselves is crucial.

“(Something) that happened after fires to review that LHMP and reprioritize one of the issues, which is at-risk, vulnerable, underserved populations, not on social media or who don’t think to look in those places,” MacNab said. “(In the LMHP) there is a measure to identify those populations and their locations and develop some sort of plan or program.”

Still helping yourself will be a necessity in the new reality.

“Right now on our website and on the county website there are a lot of resources on what to prepare at home,” MacNab said. “Residents need to be proactive and prepare for disaster and three to five days of not having response. To make a plan, have an emergency kit at home and in their car, sign up for alerts — Nixles, SoCo Alert, PG&E, earthquake notifications from the USGS. Recognize it could be stressful and know where to get information.”

But in addition, don’t forget the importance of the human factor.

“For those folks that are generationally challenged its really important to build that community within the community and make sure neighbors know who these vulnerable people are in the community,” Foreman said. “The people that are not ambulatory or have hearing or sight impairment, may have generational challenges, cognitive challenges. Any of those kind of folks need a neighbor or someone they can connect with that’s going to help them.”

“Neighbors helping neighbors. For all disasters, neighbors helping neighbors is going to be critical,” Gustafson said.

“There were many, many heroes that night that don’t wear a badge and weren’t in a fire engine and those were neighbors helping neighbors,” added Foreman.

“I have an old school view of my position as mayor,” Foppoli said. “My first job is the safety of my constituents. I always want to figure out what did we miss, what can we do any different, and when there is an emergency, make sure they are all safe and prepared. What else can we do to make sure our citizens are prepared?”

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