October 6, 2018, by Napa Valley Register Editorial Board
Napa County is a different place than it was on this day one year ago.
The landscape has changed, with large swaths of forest and brush-land charred beyond recognition. Some of its neighborhoods are different, with vacant lots where houses once stood. And of course, nothing can compensate the loss of lives and property for those who suffered in the flames.
But in some ways, Napa County – and California generally – is better for having suffered these horrible experiences.
Locally, Napa County government is working on a series of initiatives to better alert people in emergency situations. It had previously relied mostly on the Nixle alert service to send emergency notifications to cell phones and email accounts, but that is a voluntary system and many North Bay residents were caught by surprise in the early hours of last fall’s firestorms.
To add an extra layer of alerts, the county has signed on to the national “Integrated Public Alert and Warning System,” or IPAWS, the same system tested last week by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This system allows local emergency officials to send an alert to virtually all phones connected to cell towers in Napa County, including phones of visitors or other non-residents passing through.
The county will test this system at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 9, during a special Board of Supervisors meeting dedicated to commemorating the one-year anniversary of the fires.
The county will continue to use Nixle as well, officials say, and they are studying ways to improve its usefulness.
The county is working on ways to deliver emergency alerts in Spanish, an area that was notably lacking in last year’s disaster and which has proven to be a logistical difficulty. These efforts include signing onto a new Spanish-language translation service, and also developing a standard library of pre-written emergency alerts in Spanish that can be used in common or likely situations.
The sheriff’s office, meanwhile, has installed in its patrol cars a new siren sound, known as the “high-low,” which is used in Europe but not in the United States. Patrol cars can use the two-tone siren in case of disaster alerts; since the sound is unfamiliar to Americans, it is more likely to grab the attention of people in the danger zone than a traditional police siren, officials say.
Sheriff John Robertson is set to unveil this and a number of other initiatives at a press conference on Oct. 8, including an evacuation preparation program for residents in disaster-prone areas and a way to let residents mark their properties as evacuated, preventing police and firefighters from wasting their time trying to alert occupants in houses that turn out to be empty.
Coordination between county and local government and agencies proved to be challenging during last fall’s fires, so the county has bought a new video conference system that can be used to connect elected officials and staff from widely separated emergency operation centers. The system can be used even in non-emergency situations to promote greater communication between county government and the municipalities.
Outside of government, the non-profit sector is also stronger after the fires. The Napa Valley Community Foundation has continued the work it started after the 2014 earthquake, giving non-profit agencies “capacity building” grants, designed to allow them to develop emergency plans and build the administrative infrastructure to get relief to people affected by disasters. This is on top of more than $4.2 million the foundation has raised and provided as direct aid to people affected by the fires.
A full report of the foundation’s disaster fund’s receipts and expenditures will be available at napavalleycf.org on the first anniversary of the fires, Oct. 8. The foundation will also be publishing a detailed look at its fire response later this month in an insert in the Napa Valley Register.
At the state level, the Legislature passed a package of laws toward the end of its latest session to strengthen the state’s readiness for fire, including directing more money for removal of dead trees lost to drought or insects, which pose a severe fire risk.
One controversial aspect of that package involved loosening the old law on liability for utility companies. It held that utilities were liable for all damage for fires caused by their equipment, whether they had acted negligently or not. The new law allows the California Public Utilities Commission to ease the liability burden if the utility can demonstrate that it had followed all existing regulations in placing and maintaining the equipment.
Critics of that provision called it a “bailout” for utilities, but state Sen. Bill Dodd, one of the sponsors of the wildfire legislation, says this was a necessary step to prevent possible (even imminent) bankruptcy by PG&E and other utilities, a development that could have sent electric rates skyrocketing. We met with Dodd recently and came away reassured that he and his fellow lawmakers acted correctly in making this change, and also that they were diligent in trying to make sure that the new law placed the least possible cost on ratepayers rather than shareholders.
None of these measures, of course, will guarantee that we will have no future disasters, or that when disaster strikes the response by officials will be perfect. But we are pleased to see how seriously our government and non-profit agencies have taken the need to improve our capacity and learn the hard lessons from last year’s disaster.
We believe Napa County is on balance, better and stronger than we were a year ago.