Turning north Wednesday onto Los Alamos Road off Highway 12, that east Santa Rosa neighborhood seemed untouched by the Glass fire. That illusion lasted for two blocks.
Spray painted onto a sheet of plywood at the northeast corner of Los Alamos and Austin roads was the warning: KEEP OUT. No home remained to keep out of — just a tangle of rubble, a ruined white sedan burned to its axles, and a tasteful stone water feature that had somehow survived the blaze.
As Los Alamos wends its way uphill, narrowing from four lanes to two as it enters the Mayacamas Mountains, evidence of the Glass fire becomes inescapable, homes burned to their foundations, pink sheets of paper on mailboxes ordering: DO NOT ENTER UNSAFE TO OCCUPY.
In just over 5 miles on Los Alamos, with detours on Corrick Road, Cougar Lane and others, a reporter counted at least 16 burned houses. Which seemed odd, considering that by Cal Fire’s count, as of Wednesday afternoon, the Glass fire had claimed 28 houses overall in Sonoma County.
By evening, Cal Fire had bumped up the number of homes destroyed in Sonoma by the blaze to 36, with another 31 sustaining damage. As the agency’s damage inspection teams make their methodical way through burned areas, that number will keep rising, possibly into the hundreds, Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin said.
On Tuesday, Gorin toured some of the burned areas from Los Alamos Road, along the Highway 12 corridor and into Skyhawk. Seeing the debris of burned homes brought her “right back to looking at the ashes of my house,” said Gorin, who lost her Oakmont home in the 2017 Nuns fire.
Because of the need for accuracy, Cal Fire Deputy Chief Jonathan Cox said Wednesday the number of structures listed by Cal Fire as damaged or destroyed is usually “a lagging indicator.”
When they relay that information, said Cyndi Foreman, a fire prevention specialist for the Sonoma County Fire District, they don’t want it to be a guestimate. The expectation from the public, she said, is that information is fact-checked and accurate.
As Foreman spoke, 12 two-person damage inspection teams were spending their second full day collecting information.
“We start at the fire’s edge, and work our way in,” said Cal Fire’s Raymond Martinez, a manager of those inspection teams.
He and his teams had just finished working at the North Complex Fire in Butte County, when they were told their services were required for the Glass fire.
While still in Butte County, Martinez was using a Microsoft artificial intelligence program on his laptop. “We could see the heat signature on the ground” in Napa and Sonoma counties. “I could draw all the way around it.” The program dropped a yellow dot everywhere it perceived a structure in the burned zone.
Based on that number, Martinez on Sunday summoned 12 damage inspection teams, as they’re called. Since then, he’s asked for five more.
That’s one reason there’s a bit of a lag time in posting the number of damaged and destroyed structures. “It takes a day, maybe two, to get the shop set up,” he said.
When those numbers seem to be behind, it usually means “we’re not there yet,” Martinez said.
Another reason Cal fire doesn’t emphasize speed: damage inspectors don’t go into burned areas until it’s reasonably safe for the team to do so. They don’t want to get in the way of the firefighters, and they don’t want to endanger their own lives.
The teams don’t work slowly. Nor are they particularly fast. For each structure, they answer a series of questions on handheld computers:
What’s the percentage of the damage to the building? Why type of roof did it have? Were the eaves open, or enclosed? Did it have vent screens? Double pane windows? Did the house have a deck? On the ground, or elevated?
One of the things they do with that data, Martinez said, is send it to specialists who analyze it and determine, among other things, if the state’s fire codes are working, and what needs to be adjusted.
The information collected by Cal Fire’s damage inspectors is also shared with the city and county, who, as a result, don’t have to send out their own inspection crews. The data is sent to FEMA and the California Office of Emergency Services, allowing residents who qualify to immediately start getting their government disaster aid, Martinez said.
It’s invaluable work. And it can be hazardous. The dangers aren’t limited to downed power lines and the threat of falling trees.
“We just had a guy fall into a septic tank,” Martinez said. “Luckily, it wasn’t full.”
Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this story.
You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or [email protected] or on Twitter @ausmurph88.