What is known is that on the night of Sunday, October 8th, first responders were the first on the scene battling blazes that whipped through Napa and Sonoma Counties. What is not known is alongside them at the command centers, evacuation centers and government offices was Judy James, the Government Affairs Director for the North Bay. She worked tirelessly the moment the flames ignited causing massive destruction that eventually engulfed more than 210,000 acres. We sat down with Judy to discuss her experience and Comcast’s response to the North Bay wildfires.
The Night of Sunday, October 8 – The Morning of October 9:
11:30 PM: Judy and her husband had seen the first reports of the fires in Napa on the evening news. Walking outside into the heavy winds outside of her home in Cotati, she saw the fire glowing towards Mount Saint Helena. She watched as it spread, driven by the howling winds into Sonoma County. She went back inside and got online.
12:30 AM: Having experienced crises before with the Lake County fires two years previously, Judy began monitoring and identifying the evacuation centers in Napa; emailing her colleagues and the respective emergency services areas. Trying to use all forms of communications, she took to Facebook; messaging any potentially affected friends online and updating her online status to notify anyone and everyone possible of the extreme danger the fires had become. Then the general public Nixle alerts and evacuation alerts for Santa Rosa started flooding in.
2:30 AM: Judy began quickly calling and recalling everyone she knew in the fire’s path; reaching one of her friends in Fountain Grove as emergency responders wrapped on her door. Knowing that cellular outages were likely the next step, she sent as many texts as possible for those she couldn’t reach. Although her message wasn’t necessarily heard, it was seen.
3:00 AM: Having heard a knock on the door, Ms. James opened her front door to find friends she was unable to reach. They’d seen her Facebook status and additional texts and realizing she was awake, they’d come for refuge. Soon after, she received a call from a friend hosting a tour of sommeliers ho’d been evacuated.
4:30 AM: Judy had filled her home with fifteen new and old friends, two dogs and an appreciative parrot. While she stayed in the back bedroom coordinating with the growing emergency services response, her husband treated their guests to tour and tasting of their own small vineyard. A calm reprieve from the terrible tragedy happening just north and east of them.
Q&A with Judy James:
When did you first realize the severity of the fires?
“I think it was midday Monday, sitting with a houseful of guests from across the country. They believed if anything these types of fires happen often in the Bay Area and we’re usually prepared. It was in that moment of telling them that this is the worst fire I’d ever seen that it hit me, just by verbalizing it. Simultaneously, that’s when the reports of the number of homes that had been burned started coming in. And I realized that some of the local Chamber Board members, hospital administrators and rescue services officials I’d been on the phone with knew or had to assume their homes were already burned down. I saw how the evacuees staying with me were glued to the television, hoping for the chance to see if their homes were there or not.”
After that first night, how did you assist the general emergency response?
“After the roads opened up, I headed to command centers in Sonoma and Napa, acting as a go between for public officials, multiple emergency command centers, our own technical operations and external affairs teams and providing them with any and all updates I could. Making all of Comcast’s and my resources available to them.”
Given how exhausting a period of time this was, what kept you going?
“Truthfully, it was everybody giving their all. Both within Comcast and outside of it, working 12, 16-hour days, weekday and weekend. We were all doing the best we could and we were there to support one another. Once the fires started my peers on the Government Affairs teams from Sacramento, Fresno and San Francisco made themselves available for aid. Therefore, I did not want to let anybody down. I didn’t feel like they wanted to let me down, we were all in it together.”
Where are we now? What are the next steps the community can take to begin recovery?
“At this point, we’re beginning the recovery process. We’re working with the local governments to rebuild the area’s infrastructure with additional and upgraded capabilities. That means rebuilding infrastructure above and below ground, streamlining the permitting process with the help of local government and rebuilding the businesses that have thrived there.”
What do you think we can learn from an incident like this?
“I think that we need to let our partners and local government officials know that we’re ready at the drop of a hat. And that we can be counted on and accountable during these times of crisis. I know there is not a response that is ever fast enough for a crisis like this but we can always get better.”
What we all can do?
“We can go back. Come back to the North Bay known throughout the world, stay, shop, eat and enjoy the wine that made the area famous. Families, residents and businesses have been displaced or lost and bringing people back to the area will be key in how fast we can rebuild.”