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Residents who hear the ‘hi-lo’, European-sounding law enforcement siren blaring from a Napa County sheriff’s vehicle should begin thinking about a wildfire or other possible danger.

On Oct. 8, the Sheriff’s Office marked the first anniversary of the Atlas, Partrick and Tubbs fires by demonstrating new disaster communication tools. The sirens that alternate rapidly between high and low pitches—compared to the usual wail—are key.

Sheriff John Robertson explained how rural residents should react when they hear the hi-lo siren.

“It’s time to tune in,” he said. “It’s time to turn on your television, turn on your cell phone, to get those Nixle alerts as long as those towers are still up and functioning. Work with your neighbors. Communicate.”

In other words, something dangerous is happening and be on guard. If need be because of outages, go old-school and turn on a battery-powered transistor radio to learn the news.

Some rural residents have said they received no official alert that the Atlas fire was headed their way and learned of the fast-moving blaze from a neighbor or simply by looking outside. Some suggested using an air raid-type siren as a warning.

Sheriff’s officials decided an air raid-type siren doesn’t work well in sprawling rural areas and that the county needed something mobile. The Sheriff’s Office reprogrammed 47 vehicle siren boxes at a cost of $14 per vehicle to add the ‘hi-lo’ tones.

Another new tool is “evacuated” tags with wires that evacuating residents can attach to their gates or mailboxes. When sheriff’s deputies are knocking on doors to spread the disaster alarm, they’ll know people who put up these tags have already fled to safety.

Going to rural homes with narrow, perhaps gated driveways extending far back onto properties amid a nighttime wildfire can be a time-consuming undertaking. Undersheriff Jon Crawford said evacuating a single rural house can take four minutes to an extreme of 40 minutes.

Sheriff’s officers don’t want to waste time on an empty house. That’s where the tags come in.

“When we see these hanging, we’ll know these people are safe,” Crawford said.

Robertson mentioned yet another communications initiative – he wants rural neighbors to stay in touch. When disaster threatens and the government is unable to provide immediate help, they can look after each other.

“It is extremely important that we know our neighbors and we’re able to build a relationship that will help each other in time of emergencies,” Robertson said.

Sheriff’s Lt. Brian Kenner was on duty the night of the Atlas fire. He and his patrol team went door-to-door on Atlas Peak and in the Silverado area telling people to flee flames propelled by gusts topping 60 mph.

He didn’t have the hi-lo “disaster” siren as a tool.

“I think it’s going to have a huge effect,” Kenner said.

Nor did residents have the “evacuated” tags to attach to their mailboxes or gates in front of their driveways. Kenner wishes they had.

“It’s critical time, because then we can move onto the next (house) and move onto the next and cover more ground,” he said.

Kenner on Monday drove up rural Redwood Road where the Sheriff’s Office had put out evacuation tags on mailboxes as a demonstration. The forests of the Mayacamas Mountains ran up to the road, with homes amid the trees.

“This would be a very sketchy area if it was burning like Atlas Peak was,” he said.

As he spoke, a strong north wind blew. The National Weather Service had a red flag fire danger warning running through 5 p.m. No one needed much imagination to recall the weather conditions exactly one year earlier, when the three disastrous wildfires broke out, nearly encircling the Napa Valley.

County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said the weather on the fire anniversary “was déjà vu all over again.” The rain last week helped ease fire danger somewhat, but the winds were drying out the fuels again, he said.

Monterey County had sent an Office of Emergency Services strike team of five engines to the area, just in case, he said.

In a state where emergency officials no longer call an end to the fire season, Biermann said the goal is to move from “summer preparedness” to “winter preparedness.” More rain is needed for that to happen.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office with its communication initiatives is preparing for the next disaster that everyone hopes never happens.

Robertson said the Sheriff’s Office will be distributing the evacuation tags at community events and through other means. People can call the Sheriff’s Office at 707-253-4509 to obtain one.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.