USA: Country fire By Joaquin Palomino and Kimberly VeklerovOctober 27, 2017 Updated: October 27, 2017 6:00am
The remains of the homes in the Coffey Park neighborhood are seen from the air in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Tuesday, October 10, 2017. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage, Special To The Chronicle Photo: Elijah Nouvelage, Special To The Chronicle The remains of the homes in the Coffey Park neighborhood are seen from the air in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Tuesday, October 10, 2017.
On a hot September night in 1964, 70-mph winds pushed a cascade of flames through the dry vegetation of Mark West Canyon and into the outer edges of Santa Rosa, destroying more than 100 homes and burning 52,000 acres.
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Until this month, that blaze, known as the Hanley Fire, was the worst in modern Sonoma County history, and the path it carved was remarkably similar to the one the devastating Tubbs Fire would follow a half century later.
Local officials had long been aware that another tragic wildfire was a possibility. As recently as last spring, a Sonoma County report on potential hazards facing the region cautioned that a fire comparable to the Hanley blaze could cause “catastrophic damage to the county and the city of Santa Rosa.”
THE WINE COUNTRY FIRES
Alicia, who doesn’t to reveal her last name, casts a shadow at a family member’s home in Sonoma, Calif. on Wednesday Oct. 25, 2017. Many undocumented residents affected by the wildfires are reluctant to file for FEMA claims fearing their status may be passed on to the Department of Homeland Security. Some immigrant fire victims forgo aid, fearing language on FEMA Cecilia Sevilla, Building Inspector with the Safety Assessment Program, Cal Office of Emergency Services posts signs in the wreckage of homes declaring them inhabitable in the Coffey neighborhood Oct. 17, 2017 in Santa Rosa, Calif. Wine Country residents still owe taxes on their wildfire-charred Public works crews from the city of Santa Rosa clear debris from the streets in the Coffey Park neighborhood, a week after the start of the massive fires in Santa Rosa, Ca. as seen on Monday October 16, 2017. Next challenge in Wine Country fires: colossal cleanup before
If multiple blazes broke out around the state during fire-weather conditions, firefighting resources in Sonoma County could be stretched beyond their capacity, the Hazard Mitigation Plan said. “It is not inconceivable,” it stated, “that a large uncontrolled wildland fire could overwhelm resources and cause significant damage.”
The report foretold the sort of destruction caused by the Tubbs Fire, which consumed at least 5,400 buildings, claimed 22 lives and charred roughly 37,000 acres. As Sonoma County takes stock of the disaster and its efforts at fire readiness, the plan raises the question of whether enough had been done — or could have been done — to effectively deal with such an inferno.
“I guarantee there is going to be a blue-ribbon commission after this, and one of the key topics will be: How do you respond to these rapidly growing fires?” said Bill Stewart, co-director of the Center for Fire Research and Outreach at UC Berkeley and an expert on wildfires. The fires “really stressed the system, and people are going to ask why we didn’t get more resources there quicker.”
A hazard mitigation plan, which outlines preparation for a natural disaster, is a document that many counties and cities prepare every five years to qualify for federal emergency aid. Sonoma County’s plan was first adopted in 2006 and most recently updated and approved by supervisors in April.
The plan outlines concerns about increasing wildfire risks in Sonoma County, including longer fire seasons because of climate change, a growing supply of vegetation and dead oak trees that could fuel flames, and the numerous homes that have been built over the years in historic wildfire corridors. It estimated that those factors could expose nearly 34,000 people to the dangers of wildfires in unincorporated areas.
The report also notes that parts of Sonoma County most prone to wildfires are heavily reliant on a shrinking number of part-time, volunteer firefighters, a problem seen across the county.
To reduce the potential loss of life and property from a natural disaster in Sonoma County, the plan includes action strategies. Mitigation measures completed in recent years include:
A vegetation-abatement program in unincorporated areas that inspects properties and requires owners to remove dead plants, weeds and other potential fuel for fires. A pilot effort is in place in two areas that were not directly affected by the recent fires.
Stricter safety standards for new homes, particularly those built in high-risk wildfire areas. These include additional building restrictions on venting, roofing and siding materials.
Providing a free, roadside wood chipping service to help residents create or maintain a buffer around their homes, also known as a defensible space.
But as of March, some actions recommended in the 2011 report had yet to be completed, including mapping out accessible roads and bodies of water that could be used for fighting wildfires, and implementing long-standing recommendations to improve fire services, including possibly consolidating some fire districts.
A county spokeswoman said many actions listed in the plan are typically carried forward. In the most recent report, officials pledged to complete the outstanding items by 2021, along with other programs such as developing incentives to encourage voluntary improvements to homes in high-risk areas and giving the fire marshal more authority to inspect properties.
Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said safety programs such as vegetation abatement can help protect areas, but even the best efforts might not have headed off the kind of destruction the Tubbs Fire caused.
The fire started in Napa County, then was quickly spread across the Sonoma County hills and into Santa Rosa by wind and flying embers.
In its early hours, calls from hundreds of disparate locations flooded the Redwood Empire Dispatch Communications Authority, which handles emergency calls for nearly all of Sonoma County.
Aaron Abbott, executive director of the dispatch center, said that during one stretch the center was receiving more than 300 calls per hour — as many calls as it normally handles in an entire day. Once out-of-control blazes began burning in multiple parts of the county, it became clear that local responders could not handle the situation on their own.
“Nobody really understood the gravity of what was happening until it hit us,” Gossner said. “And by that time you’re already too late.”
In Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood, built in an area that the Hanley Fire roared through in 1964, homeowner groups had spent heavily on protection measures to prepare for a wildfire, Gossner said. Still, the neighborhood was lost to the flames.
“You would hope that best practices and using fire-resistant construction, defensible space would play a role in reducing the impact of a significant fire,” said James Williams, assistant chief of Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services. But “what you had with this fire is a 1 percent, 2 percent type of event. This is a natural disaster; this is out of the ordinary.”
The steps taken by Sonoma County officials in recent years to prevent damage from wildfire were also largely directed at areas where urban and rural landscapes mix. No one expected that a fire could jump into the heart of Santa Rosa, burning residential neighborhoods such as Coffey Park.
“The firefighters I spoke with, they really believe this fire will rewrite the books about the interaction between wildland fires and urban areas,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents western parts of the county and Santa Rosa. “The fire that just happened was a shock to everyone.”
While the scale of the fire was unexpected, local officials knew that the risk and potential consequences of a large wildfire were increasing, according to both Sonoma County’s and Santa Rosa’s Hazard Mitigation Plans.
When the Hanley Fire broke out in 1964, it mainly tore through orchards, farmland and open space. No one died. Half a century later, the same area scorched by Hanley and other fires had grown to include roughly 9,600 residents and 3,500 buildings. There were houses, a public middle school, a high-tech commercial space and, according to the county’s mitigation plan, 10 sites with hazardous materials.
In and around Santa Rosa, areas that had been built up over the past five decades — including Mark West Estates, Franz Valley, Porter Creek and Rincon Valley — were particularly vulnerable, the report said. The Tubbs Fire forced evacuations in some of those neighborhoods; others were partially leveled by flames.
About one-third of Sonoma County residents live in such areas where uninhabited land and human development collide, known as the “wildland-urban interface.” Since 1950, more than half of federally declared disasters in California were the result of fires in these at-risk zones, according to the mitigation plan.
Mike McLaughlin, California director of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, said that assessing known dangers is important for every community, but that trying to be fully prepared for every risk is nearly impossible because it would require year-round funding for a worst-case scenario.
“As resources allow, you work toward making those areas as safe as they can be: improving building standards, throwing money at more firefighters or stations,” agreed Roberta MacIntyre, former Sonoma County fire marshal and president of the nonprofit group Fire Safe Sonoma. “But there gets to be a point of diminishing returns where, until you have that catastrophic event, it just doesn’t pencil out.