What started as a small fire north of Calistoga in Napa County during the night of Oct. 8–9 quickly escalated into a multicounty firestorm, engulfing many communities and leading to an unprecedented disaster.
“At 10 p.m. Sunday night, for us it quickly turned into a mad scramble to put together an immediate response by establishing a shelter in Calistoga,“ said Jeff Baumgartner, executive director of the American Red Cross California Northwest Chapter, based in Santa Rosa. “As the fire spread, by 11 p.m. we sent volunteers with trailers full of supplies over the hill to the Napa area to open shelters. Bob Pawlan, one of our people, said it was a harrowing drive given the wind and fires burning all around as the fire moved toward Santa Rosa.”
Baumgartner lives in Santa Rosa near Coddingtown and was awakened by text messages at 5 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 9 to evacuate with his significant other and eight-month-old son. He notified neighbors before getting onto the freeway and out of danger.
Growing up, he had seen his father, a volunteer fireman, respond to a variety of life-threatening situations.
“As a child, I would hear sirens go off, letting everyone, including first responders, know an emergency was taking place and to report for duty. For me this October, I missed the Nixle alert and no siren went off indicating a need to evacuate. By the time I got to work there were 1,500 messages on our office phone. What we would like to do is be able to flip a switch and route most calls to 1-800-Red-Cross where a group of operators can address many needs simultaneously based on a phone tree Q&A system asking questions that start with: ‘If you are experiencing a disaster, press 1.’”
Critics have voiced concerns over the lack of a comprehensive alert system that could have been deployed to let people know of the spreading fires. While some were on Nixle lists for alerts, most were not or could not be reached, and there was no other way to inform residents in a timely manner if they were not listening to radio stations such as KZST. An emergency-alert system tested daily on cable TV networks was not activated.
Seeing shortcomings in the state’s ability to provide emergency alerts to residents in large and small communities, California lawmakers including state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, plan to introduce legislation in January designed to create a statewide emergency-alert system in the wake of North Bay wildfires that killed 44 people. They propose requiring that alerts be sent via landlines, mobile devices and other media so that as many people as possible will receive emergency messages.
RED CROSS RESPONSE
Though emergency alerts might have been better, Red Cross mobilized fast to serve evacuees and fire victims. James Cooper, Red Cross disaster program manager, mobilized a team that initially opened shelters at Finley Center and Veteran’s Memorial Building in Santa Rosa with many other shelters to follow.
When the October fires were declared a federal disaster, that designation triggered evacuation orders signaling the Red Cross to open shelters — as many as 15 on a single day. The local chapter includes six North Bay counties, four of which were involved in the fires. The chapter managed and provided support to more than 30 shelters across four counties. Some, such as one in Sebastopol, opened then closed when it became clear it was not needed.
Other shelters popped up spontaneously, organized by churches, schools, Sally Tomatoes in Rohnert Park, and other community groups in the days that followed the outbreak of fires. The Red Cross supported many of these locations.
“We operate on the baseline planning assumption that 10 percent to 20 percent of those evacuated during an emergency will need shelter,” Baumgartner said.
“At one point we heard rumors about the possibility of having to provide shelter space for between 170,000 and 200,000 people,” he said. “Our goal is to be in a position to provide those impacted and in immediate risk with basic needs within hours. We also had to act to relieve volunteers and staff exhausted from being on duty long hours, up to 12-hour shifts or more, escalating the call for community members to become involved, which they did.”
During October, the Red Cross had more than 18,000 new volunteers apply throughout its 16-county California region, equal to the number who ordinarily apply in an entire year.
Volunteers flooded the local Red Cross headquarters eager to help. While no exact number has been tabulated, it is estimated that some 3,000 to 4,000 local residents came forward to offer help within the local Red Cross chapter area through its event-based volunteer intake centers.
Baumgartner said many lessons have been learned over the years when it comes to assisting other organizations that are willing to shelter victims. In the Lake County fires of 2015, Twin Pines Casino and Lake County Social Services are examples of shelter partnerships where Red Cross staged shelter resources and trained volunteer workforces to set up and staff shelters so they can open quickly.
HEROIC EFFORTS SAVE LIVES
In disaster scenarios, safeguarding people comes first, followed by efforts to save property. During the recent fires, there were dozens of stories of heroic efforts made by first responders, neighbors and friends as they rescued others and aided in the evacuation.
All those efforts contributed to a remarkably low loss of life. Only 44 lives were lost in North Bay wildfires, with 24 of those in Sonoma County. With some 5,000 homes burned, the potential for greater loss of life was enormous.
According to Baumgartner, the greatest success during the wildfires was the ability to save lives combined with actions of the health-care community, volunteers and Red Cross volunteer-management teams that worked with people who evacuated.
“The decision-making process was not normal. Many patients from hospitals and care facilities that were evacuated were brought to shelters. The Red Cross supports health care providers but its role does not include providing acute medical care. Partnership with the health care community saved lives.”
Disaster response involves a collaborative community effort and lots of networking, he said. Establishing partnerships and taking an integrated approach to cope with a large-scale dynamic event requires preplanning and staging of supplies and materials.
Negotiating memorandum-of-understanding agreements in advance for mutual aid among community organizations is essential. Stockpiling emergency equipment, cots, blankets and other supplies in various locations is another strategy, along with having the ability to deploy mobile kitchens, trailers loaded with supplies and having CONEX steel storage containers available to stockpile reserves that can be moved quickly. Having a group of Red Cross warehouses, as well as some donated by community members, along with multiple material-distribution centers scattered around the region, enabled fast turnaround for deliveries.
Free-merchandise outlets were established in some communities where fire victims could obtain goods. Napa, Windsor and Mendocino County had resource-supply centers.
With so many evacuees without homes, there was a critical need to train shelter managers and other staffers. The Red Cross held 120 training sessions involving 2,000 attendees resulting in approximately 1,000 being put to work actively during the response phase.
Training Red Cross caseworkers was another priority. Volunteers met with more than 3,000 families during the crisis. One worker named Betsy (last name withheld) came in as an entry-level caseworker, was field-promoted several times and now runs much of the caseworker program. She logged more than 500 hours of service.
“Identifying local people who know the community, potential resources and providers makes all the difference,” Baumgartner said. “During the first 24 hours, sheltering supplies were sourced and distributed to support 5,000 people. Within 72 hours, we had enough for 20,000 impacted local residents. We must know where resources are that we can access, set expectations and clarify who does what so we can be effective.”
Baumgartner said the Red Cross has the ability to scale up its operations in a big disaster by bringing in volunteers from around the country. Many of these individuals have experience working with recent disasters such as hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
“Some assume that the government and local firefighters and police will take care of them during an emergency, but people need help, and need to be able to help themselves immediately after an emergency. We try to inform people that preparing for the Big One takes individual and community preparedness. It also comes down to having timely, trustworthy and accurate information during a disaster. Rumors and misinformation were spread through social media that created anxiety over whether there was a mandatory evacuation, advisories or alerts in place or pending.”
FLOOD OF DONATIONS
Handling unsolicited donations was another challenge.
“In an emergency, some people think this is a good way to clean out a garage and bring everything from tennis rackets to bowling balls to the Red Cross rather than things people must have,” Baumgartner said. “We are not the best at handling unsolicited items, but we benefited from local leaders who spearheaded sorting and distributing items through a network established on the fly. Piles of clothing and other items were brought in that had to be transported to other agencies for processing. When there is a disaster, people need what they need — usable items.”
During the wildfires, an agreement was reached with Goodwill Industries to pick up donated materials that could be repurposed while also giving vouchers to fire victims to select what they need.
Baumgartner said he could not be more proud of the way the community responded during the wildfires. The disaster was huge as fires galloped into multiple neighborhoods.
“We’re moving from a sprint to the marathon phase of operations,” he said. “On behalf of all Red Cross staff members, I want to thank the community for being part of the overall response. Working together was the most vital thing we were able to do.”