Sonoma County officials criticized for inadequate warning about approaching wildfires

A system that can send emergency notifications to every cell phone in a designated area was not used.

Soon after the Pocket, Tubbs, and Nuns Fires burned thousands of homes in northern California in the days following the October 8 wind event, local residents began asking why they received no emergency notifications on their cell phones.

The day before, all cell phones in Rincon Valley east of Santa Rosa loudly blared with a message about a child abduction in San Francisco about 48 air miles to the south, but the Amber Alert system was not used as the wildfires bore down on the densely packed communities in Sonoma County.

Photo by Jeff Zimmerman
Tubbs Fire. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Officials did use two other systems, Nixle and SoCo Alert, to send messages to less than 35,000 cell phone users. Those programs require people to opt-in or sign up in advance.

But most residents in Sonoma County did not receive any notifications by phone as the fires approached between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. They found out as neighbors knocked on their doors or police drove around blasting sirens.

At least 23 people in Sonoma County died in the fires.

Below are excerpts from an article in the Press Democrat:

“I’m emotional when it comes to this, and I’m a rational guy,” said Patrick McCallum, who fled the fires with his wife, Judy Sakaki, president of Sonoma State University.

They burned their bare feet and ran for their lives as flames tore through their Fountaingrove neighborhood. By that point, about 4 a.m., the Tubbs fire, which started outside Calistoga 9 miles to the east, had been burning more than six hours. McCallum, however, was only awakened by a smoke alarm and the couple’s home already was on fire. The landline phone in the bedroom never rang.

The [Amber Alert] program is available to the Sonoma County Emergency Services division, housed within the county fire department. Emergency officials have said publicly they opted against using the program because they didn’t want alerts to go out countywide and cause mass evacuations that could have prevented first responders from reaching affected areas.

“In this rushed environment to inform as many people as possible, we were worried that notification would go out too broadly, and potentially clog roads,” Sonoma County spokeswoman Hannah Euser said.

But state emergency officials have said the system can send messages to smaller geographic areas.

Inadequate notification of residents also occurred in November of last year as the Chimney Tops 2 Fire burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Fourteen people died as a result of the wildfires and nearly 2,500 structures were damaged or destroyed by flames that charred more than 17,000 acres in and around Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Simulation shows winds near origins of Oct. 8 fires in Northern California may have been 75-90 mph

“Hurricane force” winds, according to the National Weather Service, are sustained winds or frequent gusts of 74 mph.

Above: Fine-scale weather model simulation (horizontal grid spacing of 370 meters) analyzing the surface wind when the Northern California fires started, 8 p.m. local time October 8, 2017. The darkest brown areas (with cross-hatching) indicate wind speeds greater than 40 m/s (~90 mph). The red shapes indicate heat from active fires first detected by a satellite (VIIRS) at 3:09 a.m. local time October 9, 2017.  Simulation by Dr. Janice Coen, a Project Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Simulated with the Coupled Atmosphere Wildland Fire Environment model.

(Originally published at 10:40 a.m. MDT October 30, 2017.)

More research into the weather conditions when the devastating October 8 wildfires started in Northern California indicates that hurricane force wind was one of the factors responsiblewind speed conversion table for the extremely rapid spread of the fires that killed at least 43 people and destroyed more than 8,900 structures.

Dr. Janice Coen, a Project Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado ran fine-scale weather model simulations (horizontal grid spacing of 370 meters) analyzing the wind during the time the fires started. Her research (see chart above) showed significantly higher surface wind speeds than previously thought — 75 to 90 mph just upwind of the major fires.

CAL FIRE has not released the causes of the October 8 conflagrations, but at about the same time firefighters were first responding to numerous fires, they also received multiple calls about fallen power lines and electrical transformers exploding.

California law dictates that power lines are supposed to be able to withstand 56 mph.

In an email Dr. Coen told us more about the October 8 wind simulation and her research related to fire weather:


“These early simulations suggest that within a wide area of strong winds, these small, local bands of extreme winds occurred where winds were perpendicular to the local ridge. And, that the location of the peaks and their peak speeds evolved throughout the event as the wind direction changed, in part due to the high pressure over the Great Basin moving along.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence that we’d be able to find evidence to prove or disprove if/when a particular simulated wind speed maximum occurred.  And, although there is a lot of theoretical and laboratory work on stably stratified flow over objects, this three-dimensional terrain is too complicated to apply much of that.

“We’ve seen a sequence of devastatingly destructive fire events each driven by strong wind events – 2007 fires in southern California driven by Santa Anas, surprising destruction from a mountain downslope wind-driven fire in Gatlinburg, TN, and now this – yet fine-scale investigations of the mechanisms producing the peak winds and how they are distributed, particularly in relation to potential ignition sources, don’t really exist. And, though our forecast models may indicate strong gusty winds are possible, explicitly predicting how extreme the winds might be and where the most dangerous spots are with the detail shown here is beyond their capabilities.

“I hope to learn and share more about the mechanics of these events by visualizing these simulations, so we can see inside these events, prepare and anticipate, contribute to firefighter awareness and safety (as Diablo winds in general are a regional fire issue), and perhaps help potential ignition sources such as utilities manage the risk.”

wind simulation october 8 fires northern california
Fine-scale weather model simulation (horizontal grid spacing of 370 meters) analyzing the weather during the time the Northern California fires started, 8 p.m. local time October 8, 2017. The darkest brown areas indicate wind speeds greater than 40 m/s (~90 mph). Simulation by Dr. Janice Coen, a Project Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

Firefighters conduct firing operations on Pocket and Nuns Fires

Above: Some of the firefighters that have been working on the Tubbs and Nuns Fires for the last week. Photo by Twitter user @WineMeAway.

(Originally published at 10:47 a.m. PDT October 18, 2017)

On Tuesday there was minimal activity on two of the four large fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties north of San Francisco, the Atlas and Tubbs Fires.

There has been major progress on the Nuns and Pocket Fires but there is still open line on those two blazes where firefighters are conducting fairly large burn out operations to remove fuel between the lines and the active edge of the fires.

map pocket fire
Map of the Pocket Fire. The red line was the perimeter at 10 p.m. October 17, 2017. The white line was the perimeter about 24 hours before. The red dots on the north side represent heat detected by a satellite at 3:42 a.m. PDT October 18, 2017 and are in an area where firefighters were conducting a firing operation to secure control lines.

Mandatory evacuations and road closures are still in effect in many areas.

The total size of the Nuns, Pocket, and Tubbs Fires in Sonoma and Napa Counties has risen to 103,285 acres. At least 5,017 structures have been destroyed. There have been 41 fatalities on the Northern California fires since the siege began October 8.

map nuns fire
Map of the north end of the Nuns Fire. The red line was the perimeter at 10 p.m. October 17, 2017. The white line was the perimeter about 24 hours before. The red dots east of Highway 12 and north of Kenwood represent heat detected by a satellite at 3:42 a.m. PDT October 18, 2017 and are in an area where firefighters were conducting a firing operation to secure control lines.

The resources assigned include 579 engines, 60 water tenders, 32 helicopters, 10 air tankers, 101 hand crews, and 95 dozers, for a total of 5,274 personnel.

nuns fire pocket atlas tubbs
Map showing the location of wildfires north of San Francisco, October 18, 2017.

Northern California fires — hot and dry conditions Monday, but decreasing winds

At least 40 people have been confirmed dead in Northern California fires.

Above: Map showing the perimeters of the Pocket, Tubbs, Nuns, and Atlas Fires in northern California. CAL FIRE October 15, 2017.

(Published October 16, 2016)

Firefighters in Northern California are having some success on portions of the four largest wildfires near Geyserville, Santa Rosa, and Napa. However winds out of the southwest on Sunday caused the fires to spread on the northeast sides on all of the fires except the Atlas Fire which has been much quieter than the other three for the last two days.

Officials say 102,000 residents were either evacuated or had no homes to return to Saturday and Sunday in Sonoma County. Some evacuations were lifted late Sunday. Less than 2,000 stayed in evacuation centers.

firefighters map california

The fires in Sonoma and Napa counties have destroyed 3,947 structures. Approximately 4,230 personnel are fighting the blazes.

Officials report that 40 people have been confirmed dead in Northern California fires over the last week including fires in Mendocino County and near Yuba City.

  • Pocket Fire: 11,889 acres north of Geyserville. It continues to grow to the east and northeast.
  • Tubbs Fire, 44,481 acres. The most active area of the fire is still the northeastern portion around Red Hill and Mount Saint Helena. It continues to make short uphill runs on the north side of the peaks.
  • Nuns Fire, 48,627 acres. The northern portion 6 miles north of Calistoga grew to the north Sunday.
  • Atlas Fire, 51, 057 acres. It is much quieter than the other three fires.
McClellan Air Tanker Base
Air tankers at the McClellan Air Tanker Base. CAL FIRE photo.

The National Weather Service predicts hot and dry conditions for the Santa Rosa area Monday with a high of 88 degrees, relative humidity in the mid-teens, and west or southwest winds of 2 to 9 mph.

Tuesday should bring better conditions for firefighters; 81 degrees, 28 percent RH, and southwest winds at 3 to 11 mph.

map photo satellite wildfires north of San Francisco
Satellite photo taken during the afternoon of October 15, 2017 showing smoke from wildfires north of San Francisco. The red dots represent heat.

Northern California wildfires claim 31 lives and 137,000 acres

Above: map showing four of the larger wildfires north of San Francisco: Pocket Fire, Tubbs Fire, Nuns Fire, and Atlas Fire. They were mapped Thursday night between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. PDT.

(Originally published at 11:28 a.m. PDT October 13, 2017)

Calmer winds and higher humidity on Thursday slowed wildfires burning north of San Francisco in Sonoma and Napa Counties, allowing firefighters to make progress toward containment, but each of the large blazes still added thousands of acres to their footprints.

Statewide in California there are 17 active wildfires that have burned a total of 221,754 acres. Approximately 8,000 firefighters are battling the blazes and thousands of residents have evacuated. At least 3,500 homes have been destroyed this week according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The death toll has risen to 31 and many people are unaccounted for.

Here is a closer look at the four largest fires in Sonoma and Napa Counties, working north to south. The sizes were updated by mapping flights Thursday night and total about 137,000 acres:

  • The Pocket Fire northeast of Geyserville and southeast of Cloverdale has grown to 9,996 acres. It was most active on the southeast side Thursday.
  • The 34,617-acre Tubbs Fire has burned at least 2,800 homes and many commercial buildings in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County. It did not expand much on Thursday, but was fairly active in some areas on the north and northeast sides. The fire is also burning in Napa County and is on both sides of Highways 128 and 101.
  • The Nuns Fire has merged with the Adobe and Norrbom Fires between Highways 116 and 121 — north, northwest, and east of Sonoma in both Napa and Sonoma Counties. The combined blaze now covers 44,381 acres. It was active on Friday northeast of the city of Sonoma and on the east flank in Napa County.
  • The Atlas Fire has burned 48,228 acres and is 17 miles long and about 6 miles wide. It is southeast, east, and north of Napa, primarily in Napa County.

The strong winds that have driven the fires decreased Friday, but Red Flag Warning conditions will return Friday night and Saturday with 20 to 30 mph northeast winds gusting at 40 to 50 mph. Isolated gusts up to 60 are possible on the highest ridges and peaks. The humidity will be in the teens during the day and between 25 and 35 percent at night.

The Red Flag Warning is in effect from 5 p.m. PDT Friday until 11 p.m. Saturday.

In the video below, Tanker 944, a 747, drops on the Pocket Fire.

Map Tubbs, Nuns Atlas Fires
Map of the Tubbs, Nuns, and Atlas Fires.