USA – Fire chiefs from Marin and Sonoma counties are talking about lessons learned from the devastating fires that broke out in the North Bay in October 2017.
Unusually low humidity and hurricane-force winds set the stage for the blazes, said Bob Norrbom, a battalion chief with the Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue Authority, who battled the Nuns fire.
“Those two challenges were really what drove this firestorm,” said Norrbom, speaking last week at a session of the Marin Coalition in San Rafael. “In 30 years of doing this, I’d never seen conditions like that before and hope to never see them again.”
While Norrbom talked about how unusual weather conditions were when the fires broke out in 2017, Mark Brown, deputy chief of the Marin County Fire Department, suggested they may be part of a new normal.
“Climate change is happening,” Brown said at the event. “Our traditional fire season has extended in the state of California by 78 days over the last 20 years. That has a tremendous impact on how many fire we’re fighting and how explosive those fires are. It is hard for us to keep up.”
California’s population growth over recent years is “pushing people more and more into the wildland urban interface,” he said.
As an example, he pointed to the Hanley fire, which occurred in 1964. It had roughly the same perimeter as the Tubbs fire, which destroyed Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood in 2017, but destroyed far fewer buildings and homes.
Even though fire is a natural part of the state’s ecology, “We continue to put homes where there are traditionally large and devastating fires,” Brown said.
The Nuns blaze took a month to contain, Norrbom said. The largest fire in the 2017 firestorm, it started as five separate fires, burned 34,382 acres and destroyed 1,300 structures including 407 residences in Sonoma valley alone. He said there is no doubt about what caused the fires.
“All of the fires in Sonoma valley came back one way or another to power lines,” he said. “It wasn’t arson or anything else. It was all power related.”
Perhaps Norrbom’s starkest message for Marin residents was: “You can’t always rely on evacuation warnings.”
When the fires broke out late on Oct. 8, 2017, Norrbom said his department couldn’t get evacuation notices out to many residents because the land lines were down and the local Verizon cell tower also had been knocked out.
“We had no cell service and no land lines,” Norrbom said, “so my point here is you need to be prepared in your own communities during red flag conditions.”
Brown also emphasized preparation.
“If you’ve been doing your job of creating defensible space around your home,” Brown said, “you can actually shelter in place at your home until the fire front gets to the point where you can evacuate.”
All Marin residents should register their cellphone numbers with Alert Marin so public safety officials will be able to send them evacuation notices. He said those numbers are inaccessible otherwise.
Marin fire officials also recommends that people develop alternate evacuation routes from their home and coordinate disaster plans with neighbors.
“You need to know your neighbors,” Brown said. “Nothing works better than door to door.”
Medications, pets, cellphones with chargers, cash/credit cards, driver’s licenses and eyeglasses are among the items Norrbom suggests are essential items to bring when evacuating.
He said homeowners should check their insurance coverage; many people discovered after last year’s fires that the coverage they had wouldn’t pay to rebuild their homes.
He also said people need to know how to open their garage doors when the power is out.
“There is nothing worse than not being able to get your car out during a wildland fire,” Norrbom said.
And he said people should make sure their car always has plenty of gas in the tank.
Norrbom said, “When you’re on your way home and you think, ‘I’ll get the fuel tomorrow;’ it might be a good idea to get it on your way home.”