Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick strongly defended his call for the unprecedented evacuation of 190,000 county residents over the weekend — including those living on the Sonoma Coast many miles from the Kincade fire — noting the tragic lessons he learned from the 2017 North Bay wildfires that killed 24 people.
“I am 100% convinced we made the right decision on the evacuations that we did,” Essick said in an interview Sunday morning.
As county sheriff, Essick made the final decision on the extent of the mandatory evacuations on Saturday and Sunday, including the 8:30 p.m. Saturday evacuation alert for west county residents west of Sebastopol and the 4 a.m. Sunday alert for those living in Sebastopol and all the way south to Two Rock Road.
“I can understand why someone in Bodega Bay is saying, ‘C’mon. What are you guys doing?’ I don’t take these decisions lightly,” said Essick, who was sworn into the position in January after starting his career with the sheriff’s office in 1994 as a correctional deputy. “ I look at October 2017 and I still get emotional about this because I was there. … We lost 24 lives.”
The sheriff said he didn’t make the evacuation decisions in a vacuum. He relied considerably on Cal Fire experts who used computer models to forecast where the Kincaid fire might move, especially the possibility that the flames jumped over Highway 101, and started pushing west down a wide swath of the Russian River corridor. The model forecasting work is akin to hurricane modeling done by the National Hurricane Center as a windstorm threatens landfall — in the United States usually along the Florida coasts or the Gulf of Mexico.
“You look at the hurricane analogy and when they are forecasting out two days, the cone is really wide. As time gets closer, they narrow the cone,” Essick said.
For example, Cal Fire experts were focused on a section along the highway roughly between Arata Lane in Windsor and Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg, which could provide a funnel for the fire to hop Highway 101 and start a sprint west.
“They run it through the model and it spits out three different scenarios. It assigns a value to each scenario and the scenarios they are running are consistently saying that based on the topography, based on the wind, the fire is going to go this way,” Essick said.
In the end, the memories of the 2017 fires still linger for the sheriff. Essick said all the advance warning that local officials had this time to alert residents — such as the more than five hours for Windsor and Healdsburg residents on Saturday afternoon to leave — as opposed to two years ago when there was virtually no warning before flames from the deadly North Bay firestorm invaded people’s properties destroying more than 5,300 homes in Sonoma County.
“October 2017 was a surprise. We got caught off guard. We were ill prepared and people died. We had almost no warning,” Essick said. “Now, we got plenty of warning and we got alert warning system out there. We are better prepared. As a sheriff, I would feel awful if I didn’t evacuate someone and they perished on my watch.”
You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BillSwindell.