In the early hours of the most destructive firestorm in California history, officials in Napa and Sonoma counties knew their local first responders would be overwhelmed and turned to a statewide mutual-aid system designed to swiftly bring in support crews from other regions to protect homes and save lives.
They got help, but they didn't get what they asked for -- not nearly.
Commanders in the two counties requested 305 fire engines through the state's mutual-aid program as the Tubbs Fire swept west from Calistoga to Santa Rosa and the Atlas Fire raced through the hills north of the city of Napa. But only 130 engines would be sent to those blazes over the first 12 hours, according to data obtained by The Chronicle under the state's Public Records Act.
Officials in Mendocino County, where nine people were killed, requested just 15 engines from outside the county. None were sent in the first day of fires.
That left local firefighters largely on their own to combat a disaster in Wine Country and beyond that would ultimately demand an international effort over several weeks to control. Eventually, thousands of firefighters would converge on the area.
The records reveal a shortage of resources in the catastrophe's most critical period, adding to questions about how prepared local and state officials were for the wind-driven fires that ignited Oct. 8 in several counties, killing 43 people and destroying 8,900 structures in the region. Emergency managers are also under scrutiny over whether they should have alerted the public to the raging fires with messages that take over cell phones.
The shortcomings reflect larger problems facing California's main mutual-aid system, run by the Office of Emergency Services, which is integral to fighting large wildfires that often do much of their damage soon after they spark. For at least the past five years, the number of unfilled requests for mutual aid during fires has grown, according to state figures.
Fire officials and experts attribute this increase to dwindling resources and a reluctance of local governments to share them, and say solutions won't be easy or cheap.
"I can only send what people are willing to give up out of their departments," said California Fire and Rescue Chief Kim Zagaris, who oversees the fire mutual-aid program.
"If you're a fire chief, it's neighbor helping neighbor," he said. "You do that to a point, but you still have to cover home base. Everything from 911 calls, medical emergencies, vehicle accidents, fires, HazMat, you name it, the fire department handles it. And those calls are still coming in each and every day."
Emergency managers are pointing out strains on the system at a time when California wildfires are growing more intense and dangerous because of warmer weather, drier conditions and increased development in what is known as the wildland-urban interface.
Officials such as Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said the experience should prompt the state to examine how quickly mutual aid can be deployed -- in particular, when multiple large fires break out at the same time. More help earlier on, she said, likely would have saved lives, homes and money.
"It's like a chessboard," Hopkins said, "where you are trying to move the pieces where you can, and there just aren't enough."
A deluge of 911 calls began Oct. 8 around 7 p.m., when a vegetation fire broke out in the middle of Santa Rosa amid a windstorm that at times carried the force of a hurricane. By 10 p.m. -- after bigger blazes had ignited but before most Wine Country residents knew the region was in trouble -- the hourslong struggle to get help began.
Facing a wall of flames on Atlas Peak, east of the Napa Valley's famed Silverado Trail, Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann requested 50 fire engines from other jurisdictions. After descending the hill, blazing his sirens and shouting evacuation orders over his P.A. system, the chief said he called for an additional 50 engines.
The state records provided to The Chronicle show that by 5 a.m. the following day, Napa County officials had asked for a total of 135 engines to help fight the Atlas Fire. Only 35 were deployed in response.
The Sonoma County duty officer the night of Oct. 8, Chief Dan George of the Gold Ridge Fire Protection District, said he requested 125 fire engines from around the region between 10:30 and 11 p.m. to help fight the Tubbs Fire.
By early the next morning, records show that emergency managers had asked for a total of 170 mutual-aid engines. Ninety-five were sent.
Fire departments in San Francisco, Marin, San Mateo, Contra Costa, Alameda, Monterey, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties were among the first to answer the call for help, sending 65 engines to the Tubbs Fire. The remaining 30 engines came from as far away as San Luis Obispo, Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties.
The state records do not make clear exactly when engines arrived in Sonoma or Napa counties.
"I don't remember (the region) ever being that inundated, basically having the initial request overwhelm what we had in mutual aid," said Chief David Rocha of the Alameda County Fire Department, which handles mutual-aid requests for 16 coastal counties from Monterey to the Oregon border.
During the first days of the firestorm, many departments in the northern reaches of the state and the Sierra were dealing with their own emergencies and couldn't help the North Bay.
Fifty-five engines were sent to help combat fires in Butte, Nevada, Yuba and Placer counties, while the Canyon 2 Fire in Orange County would later pull 64 engines from Southern California, according to officials at the Office of Emergency Services.
In one case, 10 engines driving from San Diego County to the Tubbs Fire had to be turned around to fight blazes breaking out closer to home.
"A very dynamic situation was in front of us," said Zagaris, the state fire and rescue chief. "I think, no matter what, we'd have liked to put more engines on the ground, faster."
Berkeley firefighter Mike Shuken was one of those who responded. He and his team began driving to the North Bay around 5 a.m. on Oct. 9. They rendezvoused in San Rafael with four engines from the San Francisco Fire Department and steered north on Highway 101 for Santa Rosa. They expected to help put out a grass fire or take over at depleted local stations.
Before they could see the destruction, they smelled acrid smoke from burning structures. San Francisco fire Capt. Pablo Siguenza, the leader of the team, navigated the firefighters to a Kmart parking lot designated as a staging area for incoming crews. But flames had already engulfed the building, and no one was there to meet them.
By chance, Siguenza said, the team ran into a Santa Rosa crew whose members told them what radio channel local firefighters were using. The San Francisco and Berkeley engines then went looking for homes that could still be saved. When they rolled into the Coffey Park neighborhood west of the freeway, Shuken said, they found a "field on fire."
"There should have been hundreds of homes there. It was a little hard to get our heads around that," he said. "We were just going to go until we could find something we could put water on."
Siguenza said, "In my mind, I'm looking for the fire's edge. Is there a safe place to engage?"
Shuken doesn't remember seeing many other fire trucks when his crew got to town. Even by the early afternoon, he said, "there were still free-burning structures because there still weren't enough engines."
California's mutual-aid system has a prime objective: Move resources quickly into a disaster zone. Proximity is key, and calls for help first go to nearby counties within a region, then firefighting agencies across California.
Every morning, fire departments report how many resources they can spare to assist other agencies, if called upon. In addition, when an emergency strikes, fire chiefs or duty officers in need will often directly call their peers in other departments, seeing what extra crews and engines they can scrounge together.
The state Office of Emergency Services runs the primary mutual-aid program. The Cal Fire agency has a separate, smaller mutual-aid system, but officials there did not provide data related to the recent fires.
While California's system is considered the best in the country, fire officials say it is beset by challenges that are inherent to disaster management in the state, including long travel times on the road between distant locations and difficulty filling in for firefighters from agencies that agree to send resources.
A shrinking number of crews and engines because of budget cuts, paired with the greater severity of wildfires, has magnified the resource gaps across the state, Zagaris said. The volume of routine calls in local jurisdictions has increased, he said, making officials in those places hesitant to help others in need.
San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White was criticized for sending just one engine to help Lake County authorities with 2015's Valley Fire, which killed four people and destroyed 1,955 structures. At the time, Hayes-White said the department couldn't spare any more resources, because it had six trucks at a major fire in the Sierra foothills and others were being repaired.
Last month, her department sent 12 engines to the North Bay fires. Through a spokesman, the chief declined to comment.
In 2007, Zagaris said, the Office of Emergency Services could move as many as 1,150 local engines. During the peak of the October fires, roughly half that number were deployed.
Many requests for help have gone unanswered in recent years. Although officials at the Office of Emergency Services did not provide the total number of calls for aid, they said only 134 requests for fire engines or water tenders went unfilled during the 2012 fire season. That number has climbed ever since, hitting 3,029 last year.
"We are struggling," Zagaris said. "I have fire chiefs that want to send resources, but they've got elected officials that don't want them to."
In September, Gov. Jerry Brown approved legislation adding $25 million to the Office of Emergency Services' budget to help pay local departments for additional staffing during times of high fire risk.
The system still needs more funding, said Lou Paulson, president of the California Professional Firefighters, which represents thousands of firefighters in the state.
"Asking to send as many resources as you can out of your agency, with no commitment that someone is coming to fill your need, that will create a pressure on the system," Paulson said. "As a fire manager or mayor or city council person, how do you sit in front of the public and make those explanations if you sent crews out and something happens in your community?"
The Wine Country fires moved with such speed that firefighters could do little to get in front of them. As a result, it's unclear whether a rush of outside assistance would have made a significant difference in halting the advance of flames across roads and freeways and into the hardest-hit neighborhoods.
But emergency managers said more aid could have contributed to the difficult effort of evacuating tens of thousands of residents -- the primary mission during the first night of the fires.
In the first 18 hours, Sonoma County first responders were sent to more than 700 emergencies, said Aaron Abbott, executive director of the county's emergency dispatch center.
"If you stood in the middle of the dispatch center and listened," Abbott said, "it sounded like you were an insect in the middle of a beehive."
Emergency radio traffic in Sonoma County during the first hours of the crisis made clear the desire for support. A few minutes before midnight, a firefighter asked when more help would arrive, prompting an official to respond that resources were scarce, according to dispatch recordings by a third party reviewed by The Chronicle. .
"We have five major fires burning in the unit," said the official, who didn't identify himself. "Difficulty getting staffing, so I'm throwing resources as I feel appropriate."
Across Sonoma and Napa counties, dispatchers received calls about couples hiding from the fires in wine cellars, pools, a pond and a water storage tank. Guests were stuck in a hotel as flames scorched the building, downed trees and power lines blocked highways and escape routes, and worried relatives and friends called authorities to tell them of elderly residents who might be trapped.
Facing out-of-control blazes and a shortage of staff, fire officials gave their crews the same instructions throughout the night: Focus on rescuing people, evacuating neighborhoods and keeping yourself safe. The bulk of firefighting would come later.
Stephanie and Henry Huang, whose home in Santa Rosa's upscale Fountaingrove neighborhood was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire, said they felt like they were on their own. As they fled their house with their two teenage sons early Oct. 9, neighbors' homes were already on fire. Sheriff's deputies helped them evacuate, but they didn't see any fire trucks on the street.
"We left with nothing, just the clothes on our backs," Henry Huang said. "Many lives were lost, and they're lucky many more weren't lost. Those are the repercussions of not having enough help."