OVA Town Hall on Wildfires

 Jackie Ryan    

       A virtual two-hour town hall meeting was as much a look back at the Sept. 27 Glass Fire as a glance to the future, with fire officials sharing the lessons learned to prepare for the potential of increasingly active fire seasons. 

            By now, fire officials have carefully examined the events of that night, where at one point some feared all of Oakmont would be lost. When the Shady Fire blew up at 7:45 p.m. and merged with the Glass Fire, Scott Westrope, Santa Rosa’s interim fire chief, said all of Sonoma was “upstaffed. We were prepared for a large-scale event,” and an hour later the evacuations started, a process he called a “big win that wasn’t perfect, but better than it had ever been.” By the time the fire broke into Oakmont, everyone was out of the way, and “our folks were fighting fire.”

            Westrope said the fight inside Oakmont was helped by new intelligence, a Cal Fire plane with nighttime capability that gave personnel a four-hour warning window. It was another weapon added to the “quiver,” where pilots were able to spot a fast-moving fire at daybreak in Howarth Park, one of the areas (along with Spring Lake) fire officials have identified as a big threat to Oakmont should flames move through Trione-Annadel State Park. “Because of that (flight capability) we were fortunate to slow it down,” he said. 

            Westrope said early evacuations and call for personnel, the changes in risk assessment and awareness models and new technology since 2017 all worked to the advantage of citizens and firefighters. “I’m very proud of the fire fight that night. What Oakmont faced and what happened is the difference in perception and reality. …That any homes were lost was too many,” he said. “We are working on making it net zero. We will get there and we will get there together.”

            Paul Lowenthal, assistant fire marshal, said the department has become good at recovery, with debris and watershed task forces now in place. Oakmont owners who have fire-damaged trees can still apply for help with the new tree removal until Feb. 1 by filling out right-of-entry forms at www.srcity.org/fire. He also encouraged owners to do home-hardening. “Our biggest problem was spot fires on the roofs and gutters,” he said. “Leave your garden hoses accessible and available to us.”

            Among new initiatives are action steps in the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP). The department has asked for a multi-million dollar allocation from the PG&E fire settlement to implement plan items. At least three grants for vegetation management in the wildfire interface are also pending. Lowenthal described plans for an enforceable vegetation management program starting with community education first and involving community partnerships. In the areas of landscaping, he said they are researching best practices, including plant materials and mulches. 

            Lowenthal said the Glass Fire proved Oakmont’s vegetation management program is a “prime example of how defensible space and measures that have been taken can limit the spread of wildfire.”


            PG&E officials were also at the meeting and gave an overview of power issues. Joe Horak, PG&E senior divisions manager, said future shutdowns will be smaller and shorter, supported by work on the grid infrastructure to meet that challenge. The circuits leading to the Rincon Valley station will be “undergrounded, so that we can keep them energized and keep (parts of) Oakmont energized.” Construction is expected to start by April.