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.
More business coverage of the North Bay fires and recovery: nbbj.news/2017fires