How the 2017 North Bay Fires Prepared Sonoma County for the Kincade Fire

11 min
A woman walks threw the Sonoma County Fairgrounds evacuation center in Santa Rosa, California, October 11, 2017. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

With the smoke in the air and fire looming in the hills, it’s almost hard not to compare the 2019 Kincade Fire with the North Bay fires of October 2017.

Both fires began as gale force winds swept through the peaks and valleys of wine country and led to tens of thousands of people being evacuated from their homes.

The Kincade Fire
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About 250 fires broke out on Oct. 8 and 9 of 2017; 21 became major fires, burning more than 245,000 acres. In total, 44 people died.

Over the past week, more than 300 blazes have broken out in California — but so far, there have been no fatalities linked to the Northern California fires.

A lot has changed since 2017, according to officials and fire survivors.

“The Kincade Fire has triggered all kinds of emotions for so many of us who lost their homes two years ago,” said Susan Gorin, a supervisor in Sonoma County who lost her home in 2017.

Turning Off the Power

One of the biggest changes this time around are PG&E’s power shutoffs — though the preemptive blackouts may not have prevented the largest fire currently burning in California.

Still, it’s a far cry from the fire siege of 2017, in which a majority of blazes were blamed on the utility’s power lines. Among them were the Atlas Fire in Napa County, which killed six people, burned nearly 52,000 acres and destroyed 783 structure; and the Redwood Fire in Mendocino County, which killed nine people, burned 36,523 acres and destroyed 543 structures.

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Cal Fire investigators found that the Tubbs Fire was sparked by faulty power lines, but on private property. That fire killed 22 people, destroyed more than 5,000 homes and was responsible for as much as $10 billion in insured property losses.

Those fires, and 2018’s even deadlier deadly Camp Fire, pushed PG&E to begin shutting off power proactively to prevent fires during high-wind conditions.

But the Kincade Fire began in the midst of some of PG&E’s largest power shutoffs, which plunged millions of Californians into the dark in recent weeks. While PG&E shut off power to the small distribution lines that bring electricity into people’s homes, the utility did not turn it off on their high-voltage transmission lines.

That may have been a mistake: Last Thursday, PG&E reported that a failure on one those high-voltage transmission lines occurred Wednesday night — minutes before the reported start of the Kincade Fire, and close to where Cal Fire says the fire began.

“In one regard, we are better prepared for those fires,” Gorin said.

However, many of the people she’s heard from are frustrated by the shutoffs.

“It's difficult to live with our power now that we're so used to living in an electronic world,” she said. “It's challenging. The temperatures are going down to 31, 32 at night. And it's pretty chilly in the house without a furnace and without hot water.”

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Improved Evacuations

Gorin said a major plus of the power shutoffs is that they spurred the county to open their emergency operations center early.

“We've had our emergency operations center essentially active for the past month because of all power shutdowns, because we needed to work with the community,” Gorin said. “So we've had people there almost round the clock throughout the month of October.”

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She estimates that about 10% of Sonoma County's workforce, or about 400 people, are working around the clock on the fire.

For many survivors, the most glaring problem that night in October 2017 was the lack of communication about when to evacuate and where to go. Then, it took hours for Sonoma County officials to open the emergency center, which can send out emergency alerts.

While many officials defended their decisions, saying the fire was moving too fast to get everyone out of harm’s way, KQED found significant delays between the time that first responders recognized the need to warn residents and when officials actually sent out those alerts.

This time, Gorin says, the county took that lesson to heart.

“We did not want to repeat that experience. So they evacuated large numbers of the population in Sonoma County early,” she said.

So far, almost 200,000 people have been asked to evacuate in Sonoma County. During the height of the Tubbs Fire only about 100,000 people were evacuated.

New Ways of Communicating During Emergencies

County officials were also criticized in 2017 for not notifying enough people quickly enough and for relying on opt-in systems many residents were unaware even existed.

Now, more people have signed up for the alerts and the county is experimenting with contacting people directly on their cellphones, Gorin said.

KQED Arts editor and Sonoma County resident Gabe Meline received many emergency alerts this time around, even though he didn't sign up for them.
KQED Arts editor and Sonoma County resident Gabe Meline received many emergency alerts this time around, even though he didn't sign up for them.

“People comment anecdotally to me that we seem to be pushing out more information, more helpful information faster,” Gorin said. “And I think that comes from the fact that we have honed our communication systems over the past two years.”

This time the county is also trying to communicate with people early and often — and reserve 911 calls for true emergencies.

In 2017, 911 operators were juggling dozens of calls at once and were often unable to answer calls from people in danger. When fire victims did get through, dispatchers didn't know what to tell them about the safest way to flee the flames.

Now, dispatchers have been specially trained in how to handle fire evacuations.

“We've been very clear that if you need assistance evacuating, if you're physically unable to evacuate, call 911. If you need any other information on evacuation or services, you call 211,” Gorin said.

California as a whole is also changing how it deals with alerts. New legislation that passed in 2018 created statewide standards for how to notify the public about emergencies. Last year, the Federal Communications Commission passed new rules to make those wireless emergency notifications, like an Amber Alert, more effective and fix some of the technical problems that Sonoma County officials say hampered their rescue efforts during the 2017 wildfires.

But perhaps one of the biggest changes, Gorin says, is that people are learning how to deal with trauma as a community.

“We are lending our expertise to counties experiencing traumatic fires on how to reorganize and how to pull together an emergency operations center and how to pull the community volunteers together, which is an essential ingredient to any kind of trauma that a community experiences,” she said.

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