Fighting Fire With Information: Inside Cal Fire's Kincade Command Center

3 min
Engines parked at Cal Fire's command center near the Kincade Fire. (Michelle Wiley/KQED)

Cal Fire's incident command center in Santa Rosa, close to where the Kincade Fire has been burning for the last two weeks, looks a lot like a hedge maze of trailers.

The sprawling temporary facility, set up at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, is designed to be a one-stop shop for thousands of firefighters from across the country to get whatever they need, from food and beds to doctors and mental health professionals.

The center sprung up after the Kincade Fire erupted near Geyserville on the evening of Oct. 23. The massive blaze, which is now 88% contained, prompted the evacuation of nearly 200,000 Sonoma County residents, charring almost 78,000 acres and destroying scores of homes and other structures.

This is where experts from across the state have come to track the fire's progress and provide crucial updates to firefighters, local officials and residents awaiting evacuation orders.

Cox prepares for a press conference on the Kincade Fire.
Cal Fire public information officer Jonathan Cox prepares for one of many press conferences he's held since the start of the Kincade Fire. (Michelle Wiley/KQED)

"What I always like to say — though I'm biased — is getting people informed is just as important as putting the fire out," said Jonathan Cox, Cal Fire's public information officer. "If you lose public trust, or public sentiment, then you really become ineffective at your job."

Cox, who used to be a firefighter himself, has been with Cal Fire for 19 years. His passion for communicating with the public, he said, stems from his experience struggling with dyslexia during childhood.

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"I didn't comprehend a lot of complex things," he said. "So I like to summarize and kind of synthesize complexities into understandable information. And that's something that's definitely a result of my upbringing."

Information is a big part of what Cal Fire operations are based on, both in terms of conveying to the public what they need to know to keep themselves safe, and gathering data from the damage to determine what caused a structure to burn down and how to prevent that from happening again.

Ryan Masterson leads one of the agency's damage inspection teams, whose job is to survey houses impacted by the fire to determine what burned, what didn't and why.

"We're looking at what type of roof it's got on it, types of siding, whether there are single-pane windows or dual-pane, if the vents are opened or closed, screened or unscreened," explained Masterson. "So then we can see what protects our folks from losing their homes. What's working, what's not."

That data is then used by state officials to develop new building codes that can more effectively prevent fires, he said.

Boards covered in so-called "t-cards" organize where firefighting resources will be allocated each day.
Boards covered in "t-cards," designating where firefighting resources will be allocated each day.

Extensive incident response operations like this are time-intensive, and often get held up by more urgent firefighting operations.

"The fires that we've seen over the last few years have been fires that do the majority of their damage in the first eight to 12 hours," said Cox. "It's very hard to have this kind of system in place in 12 hours."

That was the case during the 2017 Tubbs Fire, which leveled much of the nearby Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa.

"Literally, until that wind stopped the following day, we were pulling people out of homes and neighborhoods, just trying to save lives," he said.

But unlike other recent major blazes, the Kincade Fire inflicted the brunt of its damage over a prolonged period, allowing more time to set operations early on.

Inmate firefighters file into the Cal Fire command center.
Inmate firefighters file into Cal Fire's command center near the Kincade Fire. (Michelle Wiley/KQED)

This time around, Cox said, officials had positioned firefighting resources in red flag areas well in advance of the blaze, leaving them much better prepared to quickly attack it. Residents were also much more prepared for this fire, he added, an observation underscored by the fact that not a single life was lost.

"None of us can do it alone, not even one single agency," Cox said. "And it takes all of us to kind of come together for that common mission."