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Water, Wildfire, Climate Change – What Happened Last Fall? ~ An Interview with Michael Gossman

This was a tragic and extensive fire that moved quickly, and most surprisingly moved directly into our urban environment. ~Michael Gossman.

How does a community recover from a natural and human disaster of this magnitude? It’s a question many communities are likely to face in the coming decades. But lessons and learning are here, today.

We talked with Michael Gossman, Director, Sonoma County Office of Recovery and Resiliency and asked him what they did post the Northern California fires of 2017.


Let’s start with some background on what happened in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County last year.

October 8th, 2017 –  it’s a Sunday night fueled by some hot, dry winds. Some of the gusts were up to 80 miles an hour, and not coincidently this was following about a four-year drought prior to this. In many ways northern California, Napa, Sonoma Lake, Mendocino Counties were ripe for this wildfire, unfortunately. These hot, dry winds started a fire in Napa county that moved quickly sometimes with speeds of 100 yards a minute.

In Sonoma County, the fire ultimately burned over 110,000 acres, destroyed 7,000 structures, and took over 22 lives. This was a tragic and extensive fire that moved quickly, and most surprisingly moved directly into our urban environment. Two of our main hospitals had to be completely evacuated that night, and what a lot of people don’t realize is that the fires burned for three weeks following October 8th.

Santa Rosa is the fifth largest city in the Bay Area, it has 175,000 people. It’s pretty dense, and then you’ve got streams and creeks moving right through that.

When you have urban and suburban areas those structures burn a lot of plastics and toxins and cars so we dealt with the immediate challenge post-fire of how do we contain the debris and the toxins in those sites.

How did your community start working together to protect your watersheds and drinking water supply?

Fortunately, we have a vibrant and robust environmental NGO community in Sonoma County, and one of the best things that happened post the fire was that we all dropped our jurisdictional egos, and said, “Look, we need to work together.”

After the fire, we knew at the City of Santa Rosa, the County, the Water Agency, the Open Space District, and the County of Sonoma that we couldn’t do the work needed alone. So, we held a large convening, people stepped up, we worked closely with our Regional Water Quality Control Board. They helped us identify the areas that needed to be mitigated and needed to be protected. They gave us detailed instruction on how to implement best management practices in and around this debris sites to protect our streams and creeks. The NGO community along with Cal Fire and the County of Sonoma all worked together to cut out hundreds of miles of wattle in and around creeks and to install them properly.

And that was the only way this was going to happen. There was no way one entity could do this. The other thing is that Sonoma County is spread out, and geographically it’s very intricate. So, you’ve got a lot of valleys and canyons and hillsides, and it’s a matter of how and what do you prioritize? Where do you go to first? That’s where having regional NGOs, such as the Sonoma Ecology Center out in Sonoma Valley – they knew exactly where to go. The NGOs like them were a huge help.

What is your community’s current focus?

Right now, we are in the middle of rebuilding. It’s exciting to see in the Coffey Park neighborhood, which is near where I live, houses going up. We’re trying to streamline our rebuild permit process, but at the same time we want to improve storm and stream monitoring, so we’ve installed stream gauges and rain gauges.

Throughout the county, we’ve installed an X-band radar to better predict incoming rainstorms. We fortunately had a mild rainy season this winter – fortunate in the sense that we didn’t get a lot of heavy rains, we didn’t have any debris flows in the burn zones, but we’re not out of the woods yet.

We know that for the next one to two to three years we’re at even higher risk for flash floods and debris flows or landslides, and so we need to continue to monitor that. That’s why we installed a dozen rain monitors and rain gauges and stream gauges to be able to quickly identify areas where we’re seeing a rapid increase in the flow so we can issue evacuation orders or warnings to people living in those areas and help them get to safety quickly.

What are the key lessons you’ve learned the past seven months?

The key is to leverage the partnerships with our NGO community and others – they’re an essential part of our recovery plan. We can’t do it without them.

We’re developing a five-year recovery plan to make sure that we are even more resilient and better able to adapt to the “new normal” of our climate.

We’re looking at disasters, not just fires, for example; but how do we adapt to floods as well. We’re working across jurisdictional boundaries and doing a long-term plan on how to mitigate for any future disaster as well.

We’re also building out a warning system, and the infrastructure associated with that, so that way we can get to everybody. The geography for having just one warning system isn’t going to work. You can’t depend on cellular.  A lot of people point to sirens, but those have their own challenges. We need to be prepared to have an early warning system, so we can reach all of our community.

Michael Gossman, Director, Sonoma County Office of Recovery and Resiliency Previous to this post Michael was the Division Manager – Administrative Services, of Sonoma County Water. There, Mr. Gossman was responsible for planning, coordinating, and administering the administrative, financial, and business operations of the Water Agency. Mr. Gossman received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics and a Master of Business Administration both from Sonoma State University. He has over 15 years’ experience in the management of Public Sector finance and human resources. Mr. Gossman is an active member of the Government Finance Officers Association.

Photo Credit: County of Sonoma

June, 2018

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