Mitigating for Wildfires: A California Community’s Response to Wildfires

What we’re talking about

Sonoma County, California, has been impacted by numerous weather-related disasters in the last few years — from a historic drought to devastating wildfires in three of the last four years. In between the county experienced flooding and mudslides. These events have changed how Sonoma County prepares for disasters by improving mitigation efforts, expanding community outreach programs, increasing funding for emergency management, and providing multiple sources to alert the public of threats. Sonoma County District 4 Supervisor, James Gore shares how the county improved response to recent wildfires in 2020 as it continues to build community resilience.

Key Takeaways

  • Mitigating for disasters is key to ensuring communities can survive and recover from events including: How do you pre-defeat fires, How do you address sea level rise, etc.
  • The Tubbs and Sonoma Complex fires of 2017 were a wake-up call for Sonoma County. It identified the need for better alert and notification systems to warn the public of potential threats. It resulted in changes to how Sonoma County prepares, including additional funding for its emergency management program, development of public education campaigns, and establishing mitigation programs to prevent harsh impacts from disasters.
  • Climate factors have impacted how wildfires are fueled in California, including historic droughts and changes in wind patterns.
  • Significant improvements were made to expand communication systems across the county to enhance alert and warning capabilities.
  • Community Resilience needs support from both elected officials and the emergency management community in order to be successful.
  • Emergency Operations Centers need to operate as a preparedness center and not as a “bunker.”
  • Dedicated funding to support mitigation and preparedness efforts is essential.
  • Reviewing evacuation procedures and exercising for potential disasters is crucial to being ready for the next disaster.
  • It’s crucial for communities to routinely test their early warning and notification systems on a regular basis.

Additional information


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The 2020 wildfire season has been historic, with millions of acres burned in many western states, including California. How can mitigation efforts reduce the impacts of wildfires at the local level? Our guest in this episode is Supervisor James Gore from Sonoma County, California, a community impacted by numerous wildfires in the last few years. We are neck deep in chaos and in disasterville, but at the same time we are pushing everything into resilience.

This is the Disaster Recovery Roundtable, a platform to explore, engage, and educate the emergency management community. Our topics are timely and relevant, intended to promote the exchange of ideas and best practices. Now, here’s your host, Greg Paget.

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2017 was a devastating year for wildfires in Sonoma County, California. 87,000 acres were burned in the Sonoma Complex Fire. The Tubbs Fire that same year burned 36,000 acres.

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The county was hit again in 2018. Sonoma County has experienced major fires in three of the last four years prior to that, dealing with a historic drought and then also abundant rainfall and flooding. This year the wildfires have returned, but this time it’s different, at least in how the community has responded and communicated the threats to the public.

Our guest in this episode is Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore. Gore has served on the Board of Supervisors since 2014 and served as chairman in 2018. He is the incoming president for the California State Association of Counties, one of the founders and chair of the California Resilient Counties Initiative, and has served the last two years as the chair of the Resilient Counties Initiatives for the National Association of Counties, and he has provided congressional testimony on community resilience issues and FEMA policy.

Welcome to Disaster Recovery Roundtable, Supervisor Gore. Thank you. Pleasure to be with you today.

Let’s begin by sharing with some of our audience here your background in Sonoma County there as the district representative for District 4, a little bit about your constituents in the area that you represent there. Yeah, sure. You know, it’s a crazy opportunity to be with you all.

You know, here in Sonoma County, we’re dealing with a lot of the things that are not just across the state, but throughout our nation and then some. And, you know, with these series of seemingly interwoven disasters, you know, since I’ve been in office here, specifically over the last six years, we’ve seen the end of a historic drought, which led into two different series of floods that came with it. The most rain recorded history in Sonoma County a year before the least rain in recorded history in Sonoma County, followed by three out of the last four years with catastrophic wildfires.

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And we have taken it as an extreme call to action to locally not just get into the point where we have better recovery response systems, but into the deep resilient work that I call the trench warfare of resiliency, which is how do you pre-defeat fires? How do you get your community ready for sea level rise? How do you do all these other things and not just talk about it and put plans together, but how you mobilize through action and climate adaptation? I represent northern Sonoma County. All three of the last four years of mega fires have been in my district and in other people’s districts as well, but ground central has been in my district. And, you know, I have a true area that is a wild urban interface.

We have four cities, incorporated cities, quite a few unincorporated hamlets. And we also have a lot of the hills, a lot of the eastern hills, which is shrub grass and really high fire burn areas with a lot of fire history, not to this extent with these kinds of winds that turn fires into natural disasters. But then I also have areas like the Russian river and other things in my district, the wine growing region of Sonoma County, some of the premium wine growing areas and the impacts with things like smoke tank that kill the industry as well.

So it’s been multifaceted on the whole world of economy, social management, and obviously, you know, how we work with mother nature and the temptuous times that are before us. Sounds like this year was not a first year experience for many of the people who live there in your district and in your county. How though has 2020 been different than some of these previous big disasters you’ve had? Yeah.

Well, to talk about that, I have to go back to 2017, right? And in spite of us being well-versed in managing floods and droughts, 2017 hit us in the face. The Tubbs fire, which was a part of what was called the Sonoma Complex fires, three big fires, Pocket, Tubbs, and the Nuns fire in Sonoma County. But at large, you’re talking about more than five counties hit by 126 fires that took the entire North Coast region.

It really, I’ll say we had a lot of this stuff in our hazard mitigation plans and our local plans. We had even the footprint of the 1964 Hanley fire that was strikingly similar to the Tubbs fire. What’s different has been in the past five years, specifically, is these Diablo winds, our equivalent of what would be called Santa Ana winds down in Southern California.

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These heavy Eastern winds blowing West, Northeastern winds coming out of Utah, Arizona, and other areas, and taking down power lines and causing any kind of spark in a field to turn into a drastic conflagration. In 2017, specifically with the Tubbs fire and the Sonoma Complex fires, when I say we got caught on our heels, I mean that very personally. We lost 5,300 homes, 24 people in Sonoma County lost their lives, many others injured, hurt.

During that time, because we were in a reactive mode and because we were encountering something that we had not before, the speed, the 100 mile an hour winds on the peaks, this fire going 17 miles in a matter of hours, not just a fire wall but ember cast, the likes we had never seen flying over six lanes of freeway, starting fires six miles ahead of it, almost like a fire with mortar shots going ahead of it. It was a true response in a panic mode. Our emergency operation center was cold going into that, even though we had a red flag warning.

Nobody in the community knew what a red flag warning was, many of the elected officials and others included. So the idea that Governor Brown at that time called the new normal was something that we have really embraced. After that time, there’s been a mantra, I was the chair of the board post-2017, and it was really a never again scenario.

We will never get caught flat-footed in that way. No matter how big the disaster is, no matter if it comes again, which we thought it would and it did, we will be in a position where we’re setting up resources, getting boots on the ground to prepare for it, evacuating people beforehand, and making sure that everybody can do the work and not try and spend months to catch up with the disaster. So this year in 2020, we’ve had two extremely large fires here in our county, one about 50,000 acres, another one about 60,000 acres, the Glass Fire and the Walbridge Fire respectively.

The Walbridge Fire burnt in the Western Hills, which is an area that we were expecting at some point would burn. And the crazy thing this year is that it wasn’t because of power lines going on or other things, it was because of lightning strikes. You know, thousands of lightning strikes throughout California that caused really a large part of the state to go on fire.

What that meant is really not only the local resources on fires, which were already going to other fires and had to come home to defend their flank, but at the same time, the mutual aid system that we depend upon in Sonoma County and throughout the state indeed was overtaxed. There wasn’t enough air resources, there wasn’t enough boots on the ground, dozers, and other things to really go after it. So what that leaves us with is really, no matter what, the first thing we have to do is life and safety, second is property control, right? So life and safety, it means that we evacuated the hell out of these areas, just like we did a year ago in Alexander Valley and the And you can get an idea of the kind of ripple effects and the impact if you’re evacuating, whether it’s 30,000 to over in the Kincaid fire last year, where we evacuated 40% of our population and what that kind of sets up on the social safety net services, the shelters, and then the compounding issues of COVID.

So we are neck deep in chaos and in disasterville. And so with that, look forward to going into any specifics you might want to hit. So would you say that the community this time around has been more responsive, more aware, more prepared for what came with these fires this time? Absolutely, 100%.

But they’re also exhausted. So being prepared, being ready, and then getting tired of it is something that taxes on not just individuals, but the community as a whole and how we manage our world. So, you know, it really started, I mean, we’re talking about 2020.

But but if I if I look back to 2019, with the Kincaid fire, the largest fire in Sonoma County history, 80,000 acres, I used to call the difference between 2017 and 2019, a tale of two fires. Because in 2019, just like this year in 2020, we have a system where we always have an emergency operations center that is on warm during this season, and pretty much throughout any kind of season that we need. The EOC never goes cold anymore.

What that means is people are always in place, and we’re embedded with the National Weather Service. And we are forecasting not just with them with our utility partners, a week to 10 days out, and making sure we are ready and we communicate effectively. That’s also supplemented by by a vigorous outreach campaign that we call Sonoma ready, we wanted to turn the moniker of Sonoma strong, which was post 2017 into Sonoma ready.

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You can’t just be strong, you got to be ready, you got to be prepared. So you know, community events where we gave out 1000s and 1000s of go bags where we held seminars where we I led an effort where we mobilize not just a block captain network of those who had been burnt out in 2017, to have them give ground truth and how we rebuilt and how we changed laws and other things to be more resilient. So they had confidence to rebuild, but at the same time, is organizing cope and search groups in the community, citizens organized to prepare for emergencies, citizen emergency response teams, and the like so that we had a network that we could deploy with good forecasting information so that we did the pyramid scheme in the right way, where we can we I could send a note out to nine people and they could reach 2000 those 2000 could hit the others.

Furthermore, we had in the days after 2017 is taken a very significant black eye for not deploying our wireless emergency alert system, or we alerts, push texting people, not just the opt in programs where people sign up for an app and say, let me know if something’s wrong. But mobilizing people to say hell, you know, hell’s arrived. You know, the Diablo wins, which translates from Spanish to English is Diablo, the breath is coming through.

And, and we’re gonna, we’re gonna have to start looking at evacuation. So creating evacuation zones, GIS maps online, so people could track emergency alert systems, we had even in the in that year afterwards, gone into areas of difficult ingress and egress mountain communities. And we had switched with our sheriff’s office to emergency high low sirens that sound like, you know, the police officers and or the ambulances in Europe, and had done in the areas where you have difficult cell coverage had deployed NOAA radios in tests.

So we had done active, active work, partnering with the community, because that’s the only way you can get this done. And so that’s a long way to say is is that Sonoma strong has become Sonoma ready. But Sonoma ready, still is burdened by continuing to get smacked in the face.

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I understand 2017. Also, Sonoma County had an annual operating budget for its emergency management department around $850,000 a year, with four to five full time staff. Now the county has 11 full time staff and operating budget of two plus million dollars from both county funds and grants.

Do you credit the the additions there as part of a way that the county looked at themselves and said, Hey, we need to have a better internal emergency preparedness operation in order to respond to these disasters? 100%. You can’t talk about resilience without investing into it. And not just the amount of time and staff, but also the construct.

So the first thing that I talk about with emergency managers and others all the time is that you have to have it well staffed, you have to have it resourced, so that you can use the best of current technology, and the best of old school systems, right? For for how you manage these things. But on the other side of it, one of the I believe truthfully, as an operating mechanism is that the emergency operations center needs to operate as a nexus, not as a bunker. And in 2017, it was a bunker.

Okay. So when you’re trying to coordinate response, and you’re getting city managers and mayors trying to get involved, and you don’t have National Weather Service there, but you have a county team that maybe is doing the best they can. But it’s it’s not it’s not set up right for the disaster of that scale.

And if it if they’re trying to kind of take information and create a perfect, legitimate, non liable response, the thing you have to be very careful of is a lot of that information and effort becomes very stale. And it’s slow, right? Is you have to be able to adapt, act, iterate, share information and people in your community and throughout your partnership and your network and your community leaders will give you a huge amount of of grace, if it’s not perfect, as long as you embrace, for me a simple philosophy, which I call imperfect, relentless progress. If you tell folks, hey, we don’t have all the information, but this is what we know.

What you can’t do is sit there and create and draft a press release that takes you 45 minutes and has five layers of review, while fireballs are flying into your suburban neighborhoods, right? And Facebook is lit up with the Facebook fire. But at the same time, outside of that, you’re being quiet as the center of excellence or the center of central command. So that’s been a huge effort, but it’s not just the money into emergency management office and what we’ve done.

We’ve also done other things. We put a million dollars in a year and a drawdown account for fire districts for upstaffing during red flag warnings, right? So that fire districts know that if there’s a red flag warning, they can put all boots on the ground to prepare and to be ready and to deploy. We also worked with our sheriff’s office and incident command to set up something that continues to need to be refined, which are evacuation zones, so that we’re not just depending on a cell tower to imperfectly send push alerts out into an area when you know that there’s spillover and you don’t want to freak people out in one area when you’re trying to isolate on another.

But I’ll tell you, a lot of this is surrounded by that point I made about being a bunker, is that there’s a lot of emergency management that has, well, local hazard mitigation plans, multi-jurisdictional hazard mitigation plans. They have tech ability to somewhat of a degree and others, but if you don’t test this stuff imperfectly with your community, you do a disservice to them, number one. And number two, you do a disservice to yourself because if you want to mobilize everybody during an emergency and they haven’t been prepped, and that’s organizations, special districts, all the way down to citizens, then you’re failing.

So one of the call outs I always give to people in any county is if there is a county out there of the 3,100 in the entire United States that is not publicly testing its imperfect alert systems and doing trainings with people and broadcasting to tens if not hundreds of thousands of people in your community with tests, then you are doing a disservice to your citizens. Up next, we’ll ask Supervisor Gore who should take the lead in the community to initiate building community resilience, elected officials or emergency managers. Stay with us.

We’ll be right back. You’re listening to Disaster Recovery Roundtable. Now here’s a preview of our next episode.

We’ll be joined by one of the largest nonprofits in the U.S. to hear how the United Way supports communities and disasters and how they are modifying their traditional community programs during the COVID pandemic. Our guests include United Way Worldwide President Suzanne McCormick. So we do have some United Ways right now that actually are providing direct services.

We have United Ways who have been handing out food, distributing masks or PPE, actually getting out and getting resources to their communities in a very direct way because as you said, many of their nonprofit partners weren’t able to do that, had to close or just didn’t have the capability. Now back to your host, Greg Paget. And welcome back.

We have been chatting with Sonoma County, California Supervisor James Gore on the importance of building community resilience programs and lessons learned from disasters in Sonoma County, California over the last few years, including yet another year of wildfires. Supervisor Gore, when it comes to creating a culture and a community of resilience and building out the initiative at the local level, who should really take the lead? Should it be elected officials like yourself or should it come from the emergency management community and officials who have the expertise in dealing with disasters? Well, it has to be both because because the elected officials in an area are really the, usually the voice of connective tissue, right? Emergency management doesn’t know the 13 different hamlets in my area and how to communicate effectively with the heads of homeowners associations or neighborhood groups or people that we really mobilized and connected to that expertise. You cannot have people like me, elected officials outrun and rogue when there are emergency managers who know this stuff up and down.

But at the same time, emergency managers cannot be in office buildings hiding and creating beautiful plans and then trying out their systems. It has to be touching people every day. So that was something that we teamed up together.

After our disasters, we switched our emergency manager position to a director of emergency services. We heightened it. We increased the salary.

We brought in somebody who was ready to charge and he was and is the champion that I need as an elected official so that we can stand side by side and co-message and co-act. With that expertise and with those experiences, I understand you hold some leadership roles with the state of California, but that also you’ve previously served as the disaster recovery as a chair for the Resilient Counties Initiative there for the disaster efforts for the National Association of Counties. Have you had the opportunity to share your best practices, lessons learned to others? Have they actually come to you? Have others come to you and say, hey, what is Sonoma County doing now that’s changed since, you know, the big fires of 2017? Yes, and more is always needed.

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So let me put that in a couple operational ways as opposed to answering it as a perceived generality, right, is that we know that’s all needed, but the question is how do you do it? Well, what you do is you make sure that the Resilient Counties Initiative nationally is linked up with the National Emergency Managers Association. You make sure that when you create a, not just your local effort and you’re working with your emergency manager like in a county like mine, you’re also using as me, you know, my position, I’m the incoming president of the California State Association of Counties and I founded the Resilient Counties Network. What we did is we created a a partnership where it was emergency managers, it was health and human safety leaders, it was elected leadership, it was county administrators, and it was disaster management companies because a lot of the counties around the country are not in a position to be able to upstaff and work with a heavily developed emergency management system.

They don’t have the ability like I do to go from 850,000 to 2 to 4 million plus into this and even though that’s difficult for us to do, you can find the money. So, there are many people that have to work with contractors and they, a lot of them don’t even have like no cost contracts set up where they’ve already interviewed which kind of consultants they want to work with. They have to figure that stuff while their community is burning, while their community is underwater, right, while the winds are coming through.

So, you know, I have a couple things that I really state firmly to local officials and to emergency managers. Number one, you have to present your local hazard mitigation plan before your board every year. Number two is what we’ve done is we’ve taken and workshopped four times a different disasters.

So, ironically or not so ironically, last year in January we reviewed floods and in February we were hit with a historic flood. In April or May we reviewed wildfires and everything we’d learned and then we were hit with the Kincaid fire. So, we had gone through and challenged each other and asked tough questions and not had just polite wimby-dimby conversations.

We had, you know, we were deploying and what that meant was is that in 2019 and now in 2020, while we are still getting hit, we are a well-oiled machine and we have trust in our staff to be able to do what they need to do and we get electeds integrated in where they should be, being a voice for the community, but we don’t put them in the Emergency Operations Center where they’re trying to make calls about incident management when they shouldn’t be doing that. That’s not my role. You know, you have some great stories to tell there and you have some great advice for others it sounds like.

Where are we right now in Sonoma County with where you’re headed as far as the wildfires at this point and then, you know, right behind it you start to have your winter rains. Are you worried about mudslides again and those kind of impacts? Yes, yes and it’s now a way of life, right, and you have to turn it around. Like even when I say that, it gives me the chills up my neck because I know that’s the purpose-driven work that I have to embrace for my community and I have to embrace in this leadership moment and so we’ve already had two fires this year, but what I have huge confidence in, number one, is our forecasting, our being ready, Sonoma ready, and our ability to get people out of harm’s way so that emergency management people and our first responders, our fires, our deputy sheriffs, our police and others can go and do their work.

You cannot put people in a situation where they’re evacuating people out of harm’s way and expect that they can hold the fires out of suburban neighborhoods like we saw before. In 2019 and now with the glass fire that we saw recently, we would have had thousands more homes burned down if we did not have that network established. So the ready, respond, recover is in a place where I feel hugely confident of, right.

Now what’s next is what all this comes to. Well, myself in our emergency managed department, our fire districts, our sheriff, our others, we’re working our tails off and we have the system I talked about in a good place where it is always going to be adaptive management, always a strive towards better. So I have confidence in that.

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What I do not have confidence in and what’s needed is that the trench warfare of resilience work with respect to firefighters, or excuse me, fires, is vegetation management, right. It’s home hardening. It’s deploying out into these things that make areas resilient and in essence pre-defeat fires, right.

On the side of flood and flood management, we have areas that because of the competing factors of environmental reviews and old school negative gravel mining in our rivers, now with nothing happening, we’re having floods more and more, right, from these events. Not just because we have atmospheric rivers and heavy rain flows and things like that, but I mean we have to get into river management better and so we’re creating new districts to do that. Same thing out on the coast with sea level rise and our partnerships with Caltrans and others, so resilient infrastructure.

We just committed out of a fund we’ve developed an initial tranche of 25 million dollars into veg management, right. How do we make that into a generational investment in this area because we are at the connection and the confluence of 100 years of fire suppression post clear cutting in areas where I can look into these hills and the traditional ecology was 60 trees per acre and now it’s 1600, right. But at the same time as a government entity that looks out and says 95 percent of those of those lands are privately owned, I have to hold them to account and provide a subsidy, right, so that they can achieve something.

So I don’t just look at a like my grandma up on a hill and say well you know you’re on a fixed income, I’m going to come over and red tag your property and you’re going to have to spend 45,000 dollars, right, to clean that up. So we’re funding chipper crews, we’re funding veg management crews, back to the old camp crew days. We’ve created a matchup for goats and cow herders and others to get up into people’s private land.

But you know people also have to take ownership and they’re being forced to take ownership because their insurance is getting dropped in these high fire severity areas. And that’s the other thing that’s really forcing the hand of people and others is they’re not going to get insurance in the future if they don’t harden their home, if they don’t clear their vegetation around their house, and if they don’t do much other good work. Supervisor Gore, we appreciate all this information, so much here to learn about mitigating for wildfires and what your community has done to recover from these fires and to respond for future fires.

We appreciate your time and being part of the disaster recovery roundtable. Well I appreciate the heck out of you because I have another mantra which is for folks is wake up, wake up others, and stay woke. You do not have an opportunity to get smacked in the face and act like you didn’t know or you could be surprised.

We should have learned from Lake County, from Santa Barbara, from San Diego County 15 years ago, which fire and others, and we didn’t update our systems, we didn’t hold accountability over our utility, and all these other things, and it came to bite us. But we bite back. And if you ever want to have me on again to talk about the disaster industrial complex and FEMA messaging and the Disaster Recovery Reform Act and testifying before Congress and getting into the esoteric deep details that support this, I’d be happy to do so, but I applaud you for what you’re doing and for getting the word out.

Thank you, we’ll definitely take you up on that offer. James Gore, supervisor for District 4 in Sonoma County, California. You’ve been listening to Disaster Recovery Roundtable, a platform to explore, engage, and educate.

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