Report: As Wildfires Raced Through Sonoma County, Warnings Were Slowed by Confusion, Poor Coordination

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Flames consume a home in Glen Ellen as out-of-control wildfires move through the area on Oct. 9, 2017. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A review of Sonoma County's response to last October's deadly wildfires has found that the county's procedures for issuing emergency alerts and warnings were "uncoordinated and included gaps, overlaps, and redundancies," according to a report released Monday.

The report from the Governor's Office of Emergency Services also said that in the early hours of the conflagration, the "county lacked reliable, timely, and coordinated situational awareness as to the scale, size, and scope of the fires' growth, character, and movement."

Twenty-four people died in the county as wind-whipped fires swept into Santa Rosa and other communities late on the evening of Oct. 8 and early Oct. 9. The blazes destroyed more than 5,000 homes in the county.

The report found that during the critical time period, "Sonoma County had in place an established public alert and warning capability with the means to alert a wide range of county residents and visitors."

The report said a decision not to send wireless emergency alerts to cellphones was "influenced by a limited awareness and understanding of the system's capabilities."

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Chris Helgren, former emergency manager for Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services, faced questions about his decision not to send wireless emergency alerts, even as the Tubbs Fire still burned.

Helgren said in previous interviews with KQED that he was concerned about the possibility of panic and traffic jams if wireless emergency alerts were sent out.

“I think that our decisions saved lives,” he had said. “And I can't imagine having a wider alert for people that were not in the immediate danger area. I can't imagine what that would have added to the already overly congested situation, where literally the roads were locked and there was no movement.”

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported last week that Helgren has been reassigned to a new position.

The state OES report said Sonoma County would benefit from additional training and more preparation and analysis associated with "rapidly evolving evacuation scenarios."

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will discuss the report's findings at its meeting Tuesday morning.

KQED's Marisa Lagos, Sukey Lewis and Lisa Pickoff-White contributed to this report.

Read the Cal OES report below.