Around 120 Fitch Mountain residents participated in a community evacuation drill on Saturday, June 5. The drill — which was organized by the Sonoma County Office of Emergency Management, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, the city of Healdsburg and local COPE groups — started at 8 a.m.
The purpose of the drill was to familiarize residents with local evacuation routes and safely practice an evacuation of those routes. Families and their pets piled into their cars with their emergency-go bags and drove from Fitch Mountain down South Fitch Mountain Road to the designated temporary evacuation point at the Healdsburg Community Center.
Cars, and a few trailers, came down Healdsburg Avenue in an orderly fashion, however, traffic became a bit clogged in the left turn lane into the community center parking lot as folks waited to pull into the parking lot.
Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputies drove around Fitch Mountain and past the Villa Chanticleer area with their hi-low sirens and during the exercise, the county’s SoCoAlert emergency alert system was tested to notify participating residents of the evacuation drill. The city also issued Nixle alerts on June 3 and 5 to alert the entire Healdsburg community that the vehicular procession to the community center was just an exercise.
As people arrived at the community center, the Healdsburg Fire Department and disaster response groups such as the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), the Red Cross, the Sonoma County Office of Emergency Management, North Bay Animal Services and the Halter Project, set up information booths.
District 4 Supervisor James Gore was in attendance and spoke on the importance of being ready for wildfire. “We have to wake up ourselves, wake up our neighbors and we have to stay woke,” Gore said.
Staying “woke” and being prepared for the worst is what Mill Creek community members did in 2019 when they participated in their own evacuation drill. Their level of emergency preparedness paid off in 2020 during the Walbridge Fire when the whole Mill Creek Road area in western, unincorporated Healdsburg were forced to evacuate. While the fire devastated the area and leveled many homes, all Mill Creek residents were able to safely evacuate and no lives were lost.
The area also has completed many vegetation management projects and now the Fitch Mountain community hopes to do the same.
“We’re making permanent change in these communities led from the ground up by communities. You have $1 million coming in this area through state funding for vegetation management and other work going on. Through our county board of supervisors an additional $4 million going into vegetation management. There are a lot of great projects going on and it’s just continuing to roll. We also have a million dollars that put into a pot this year for red flag warnings for upstaffing.” Gore said.
Upstaffing is when fire departments have all staff on hand and ready to respond to a fire if needed.
“We are all attuned. We went from 2017 with the Tubbs Fire and it took a long time to say ‘Sonoma Strong,’ but we said it not just as a rallying cry but we feel strong. We turned that over to ‘Sonoma Ready,’ and went through the Kincade Fire, which was a totally different thing than 2017,” Gore said. Even though we had similar wind events, we were leaning in on that, we were evacuated areas, we were making sure emergency responders could do what they needed to do as opposed to evacuating us in the middle of chaos. And now we’re at a place where we’re trying to go from ‘Sonoma Strong,’ over to ‘Sonoma Ready’ over to ‘Sonoma Safe’ to where we feel prepared, we feel ready, but we also don’t live white knuckled, we don’t live in fear. We live in preparedness.”
Jeff DuVall, the deputy director of the Sonoma County Department of Emergency Management, also spoke and thanked the evacuation drill attendees for participating in the exercise.
“As Supervisor Gore said, we’ve come a long way since 2017. With his support and the support of the board of supervisors we have formed a department of emergency management and we now have 12 people in our department that everyday look at planning, training, exercising, alert warning — SoCo Emergency Alerts — and how we can continue to improve our technology. Those alerts that go out, you guys did great today, but don’t forget that. Keep going forward when we send those emergency alerts out through SoCoAlert and the wireless emergency alert and the NOAA radio,” DuVall said. “Heed those warnings, heed those orders. Please get out early. That’s the biggest tool we have in our toolbox … is you and how prepared you are, like you did today. Continue to have your go-bags ready and continue to have that plan and communicate that plan with family, friends and neighbors. You just never know when you are going to have to do it for real.”
Deputy Brandon Jones of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, who’s the weekday north county deputy, said in the event of a real disaster all patrol deputies would be out in the area with their hi-low sirens and going door-to-door to notify people of an evacuation.
During the Saturday morning exercise, only two sheriff’s deputies were driving around Fitch Mountain with the hi-low sirens.
“And one of the reasons we’re pushing the evacuation tags so hard is the faster we can get through a community, the safer it is for all of you and the safer it is for my partners and the quicker we can move to the hard road closures,” Jones said. “There has been a conversation on social media about the evacuation tags and the concern that it might alert a looter to the fact that you are no longer home. That’s 100% true … Our goal with the evacuation tags is to speed the evacuation portion as fast as possible so we can move to phase two, which is protection of your property, and that’s going to come with the road closures, the patrols in your neighborhood and basically a complete shutdown of your community.”
Jones and Healdsburg Fire Chief Jason Boaz reminded folks to stay signed up for Nixle and SoCoAlerts and to sign up at https://www.nixle.com/ if you’re not already signed up.
To sign up for SoCoAlerts, visit https://socoemergency.org/get-ready/sign-up/socoalert/.