On the night of October 8, 2017, Pat Kerrigan of KSRO News Talk awoke at her home in Kenwood. Outside, the wind howled. Across the street 30-foot high flames threatened. A fireman told her to get out. Kerrigan and her wife, Michele, grabbed their dog, Chance, jumped in the car and headed west on Bennett Valley Road. She sensed this was more than a neighborhood fire and headed for the radio station in Santa Rosa. Driving dark circuitous back roads, they arrived just after midnight.
Mike DeWald, KSRO’s afternoon talk show producer, sniffed smoke while playing hockey at Snoopy’s Home Ice at about 12:30 a.m. Others did too, but attributed it to wildfires far away. On his way home to Rohnert Park, DeWald noticed social media going viral with news of the rapidly spreading fire outside Calistoga. He turned around and pulled into the radio station’s parking lot 15 minutes prior to Kerrigan.
DeWald worked afternoons and Kerrigan broadcast in the morning. They barely knew each other. Yet instinctively they knew what to do. Seated at the control board in the broadcast booth, they put on headphones. Kerrigan turned to DeWald and asked, “Are you ready?” He nodded. With the click of a switch he turned off the satellite broadcast and Kerrigan went live. “Good morning. It’s 1:05 a.m. and the North Bay is on fire,” she said, her voice steady. Chance, sensing the gravity of the moment, curled up at her feet and fell asleep.
The Kerrigan-DeWald team proved to be fortuitous. She was the station’s seasoned news broadcaster. As the producer of the afternoon talk show, The Drive with Steve Jaxon, for the past 10 years, DeWald had important community contact information ready on his iPhone. And he was social media savvy. By following postings, he knew where people were and what they were experiencing. He contacted them, passed Kerrigan a note and put them on the air. It was a working fusion of social media and radio. When power failed, cable TV went dark. And when towers burned, cell phone coverage went out in most places. KSRO and Kerrigan’s voice served as Sonoma County’s lifeline to news of advancing flames, safe evacuation routes and shelters.
Michael O’Shea, president of Amaturo Sonoma Media Group, Inc. (owners of KSRO) was roused at 2:30 a.m. when electricity failed at his home in Rincon Valley. He immediately turned on his transistor radio, relieved to hear Kerrigan already broadcasting. O’Shea headed for the station and others began drifting in. Like Kerrigan, most had been evacuated on short notice and left everything behind. All advertising and scheduled programming was cancelled for an indefinite period. And Sonoma Media’s four FM music stations joined with KSRO’s continuous coverage simulcast.
Kerrigan broadcast interview after interview with officials providing troubling insight into the magnitude of the fire, and the danger. When Officer Jon Sloat of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) came on the air, Kerrigan asked, “What can you tell us?”
“This thing’s evolving very, very fast. Fountaingrove’s being evacuated. CHP has shut down Mark West Road in Larkfield. Fire’s coming from that direction. If you can see a red glow in the sky, I’d advise you to grab valuables and be prepared to get out.”
Then came George Rose, a photographer interviewed on KSRO’s talk show two days earlier. He shouted to be heard. “Have to take cover! This wind’s whipping.”
“Where are you George?” Kerrigan asked.
“On a hilltop above River Road near Woolsey. The entire ridgeline’s lit up.”
Interspersed with the interviews, KSRO passed along Nixle alerts. At the time, Nixle was a community service previously little used by the public. Now, with increased awareness resulting from the fires, many county residents have signed up. (See “Sign Up for Emergency Alerts”.)
“It’s 2:31a.m.,” Kerrigan said. “There are 60 fires reported throughout Sonoma County. On the line we have James Gore, Sonoma County Supervisor.”
“My district has been decimated,” Gore said his voice heavy with emotion. “My heart and prayers go out to all the families in Larkfield-Wikiup. The Larkfield Center has burned and most of the neighborhoods. I just spoke to a woman whose parents are in the mountains outside Geyserville. They’re stranded in a pond surrounded by flames. A helicopter’s trying to get in. A 911 dispatcher’s on the line with them.”
“It’s 6:45,” Kerrigan said. “We have Mayor Chris Coursey with an update.”
“The scope of the fire is getting larger and larger,” he said. “I’m concerned as to what we’ll see when the sun comes up.”
For 12 hours, Kerrigan anchored the news broadcast. Throughout, she remained the voice of calm, and yet there were moments when she struggled with her emotions.
During an interview at the radio station she sat beside Fire Chief Tony Gossner when he said, “The 911 dispatchers are the unsung heroes. They answer calls from those trapped by the flames. And then put out an urgent request for help to the responders. On occasion the dispatchers are advised that nothing can be done. Yet they stay on the line talking, until the line goes dead.” Kerrigan dropped her head. She glanced away.
In another moment of high emotion, Paul Lowenthal, Santa Rosa assistant fire marshall, on the air with Kerrigan, spoke from the intersection of Mendocino Avenue and Fountaingrove Parkway. Suddenly he shouted, “Oh my God, the fire’s jumped the freeway.” Kerrigan gasped. She knew what that meant. Coffey Park, with thousands of homes and families, lay on the other side.
When Kerrigan had rushed from her neighborhood ahead of advancing flames on Sunday evening, she assumed her house was gone. Busy and preoccupied while broadcasting news and alerts, she gave her home little thought— until Tuesday morning. As she interviewed a fireman engaged in fighting the Nun’s fire near Kenwood, he said, “I’m standing outside your house. It’s okay.”
Most county residents had learned to live without a home radio. Radios had been tossed or batteries allowed to die. Now, seeking news of the fire, many resorted to sitting in their cars with the engines running while listening to KSRO. When flames menaced Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, a nurse remembered she had a small pink Malibu Barbie doll with a transistor in her desk drawer. She retrieved it and hospital staff gathered to listen.
“As a local radio station we didn’t have resources to provide sustained coverage over the extended period that the fires raged,” says O’Shea. “The five-member news staff was expanded to include deejays and management. Newscasters came out of retirement. All assisted in providing non-stop news coverage. Eventually we had 30 reporters helping to cover the story.”
Mike Yates, president of Teamster #665, arranged for a 10,000-gallon tanker to stand ready in the parking lot to hose down the roof of the building. Local authorities singled out KSRO as the primary source for information on evacuation and safety. They determined that the station’s critical community service had to be maintained. Should flames threaten, the station’s structure would be protected.
Twice daily, Sheriff Rob Giordano joined KSRO on air. He provided updates on conditions and answered listener’s questions. He urged local and national audiences to stay tuned to KSRO for ongoing current information. “The partnership was a perfect example of the role local radio plays in public safety,” says Sheriff Giordano. “KSRO and Pat Kerrigan deserve kudos for their marathon reporting. They provided crucial accurate information around the clock.”
Along with Giordano, Cal Fire became another regular KSRO participant. Following briefings at the fairgrounds, officials made themselves available several times a day. Regularly, teams visited the studio to share fire maps, conditions and reports on areas of concern. Their expertise in fire forensics added to the public’s knowledge.
Several weeks after the fires, Stephen Seager, M.D., a Santa Rosa psychiatrist and filmmaker, approached KSRO about putting together a documentary on what had happened in Sonoma County, the First Responders and KSRO’s role. O’Shea and Kerrigan agreed to be the producers along with Seager’s wife, Mette, a Kaiser physician. The film, in scenes reminiscent of a lunar landscape, shows what happened that fateful night in October. “Urban Inferno: The Night Santa Rosa Burned” premiered at the Roxy Stadium in July. Thereafter, the documentary played at Santa Rosa’s Third Street Cinema for seven weeks. Approximately 5,000 viewed the film. Proceeds of nearly $31,000 from ticket sales went to the Community Foundation’s Resilience Fund. “Urban Inferno” has been entered in the renowned Sundance Film Festival and 30 other festivals worldwide. The film recently received Best Documentary Feature Award at the Las Vegas film Festival and the South American Cinematic Arts Festival in Chile.
Governor Jerry Brown declared October 26, 2017, as a “Day of Remembrance.” That day Kerrigan moderated a heart-felt ceremony on the campus of Santa Rosa Junior College. It opened with the fire department color guard. Two firemen strode in on either side of the uniformed men bearing flags. They carried fire axes, the symbol of their trade. And as the men marched, sun glinted off the carbon steel blades. Decked out in tartan kilts, the California Professional Fire Department pipe and drum corps followed.
Tenor Mark Katz, adjunct professor of voice at SRJC and vocal performance major Linnea Hill, a soprano, sang the national anthem. Vicente Reyes, an eighth grader whose family lost their Larkfield home in the fire, stood at the podium and read “Rising” a poem by Sagar Nadav. …I will rise after every fall. After every fall I will rise.
Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the House of Representatives, along with other Federal government officials, presented Fire Chief Tony Gossner with a flag flown over the U.S. capital. “This is to honor those who lost their lives, and to the First Responders who saved so many,” Pelosi said. Fire Department Captain Keith Jeffers tolled the bell 42 times in memory of those who died. And after a pause, the bell rang out again, this time for those still missing. As the haunting sound of bagpipes floated through the air, many of the assembled dabbed at their eyes. Transcendence Theater Company concluded the event with a rousing, hand-clapping rendition of “Lean On Me.”
When Kerrigan stepped from the stage, a crowd formed around her. Over the airwaves, they had bonded with her voice. And now one-by-one they came forward to meet her. They hugged her. They held her tight. They told her their stories. A mother introduced her young son. “Tom,” she said. “Meet the woman who saved our lives."
Nixle is a community service. Emergency alerts, natural disaster advisories, severe weather and severe traffic conditions, criminal activities and missing person notifications are issued in real time. Sign up for the service is easy and can be done online at www.nixle.com. Anyone can join. And there’s SoCoAlert with emergency event notifications from Sonoma County’s first responders to include: evacuation notifications, shelter-in-place orders, boil water advisories, tsunami and flood warnings. Sign up at www.socoalert.com. For residents of Northern California, an area subject to wildfires and earthquakes, Nixle and SoCoAlert are highly recommended.
“I always wanted to be on the radio,” says Pat Kerrigan, news director for KSRO and a third-generation San Franciscan. “When I was 7 or 8 years old my mother would get upset when I’d bring my radio to the dinner table. For me the weekly announcement of the top-10 hits was more important than eating.”
Kerrigan relocated to Sonoma County more than 40 years ago and began her broadcasting career with 92.9, a top-40 hits station and precursor to Froggy 92.9. From there she moved to country music’s Q105 and hosted the morning show for 12 years before joining oldies music 97.7. That became the highly successful 97.7 The River.
Throughout her career, Kerrigan showed a commitment to public service and supporting county nonprofits. “I was thrilled when I was asked to help raise money for a breast care center for women. I contacted Lily Tomlin and managed to get her to perform for free. Being on stage with Lily was special.” A quarter million dollars in seed money was raised at the Luther Burbank Center’s evening of comedy. And the now well-established Sutter Breast Care Center is an important part of the community. Kerrigan’s aging parents’ health began to decline and she put her career on hold for eight years. After they passed away, the radio station group had returned to local ownership and Kerrigan was keen to get back to broadcasting.
“When Pat contacted us, we were considering hiring an additional morning news broadcaster,” says O’Shea. “Though she had considerable experience as a programmer and deejay, Pat hadn’t had a major role broadcasting news. But she had the right voice and a big heart. We took her on and she quickly proved herself. And that morning of the fire she more than rose to the occasion. She exhibited strength, courage and compassion. She saved lives.”
For weeks following the fire, hundreds of emails from KSRO listeners expressing gratitude, poured into the station:
“I evacuated and only knew what was going on when I sat in my car and listened to your terrific reporting. It meant everything.” —Vicky
“Please thank Pat for the excellent job she is doing this morning covering the fire. She has been the best source of info out there.”—Karin W.
“We were let down by today’s technology…very limited or no cellphone service, and no cable or Internet. But there was KSRO giving us nonstop reports.”—Ron M.
“To say your station is honoring its commitment to the community is a vast understatement. You are a lifeline to those with no cell service or cable TV. My brother is holed up in his house. KSRO is providing needed information, and comfort.”—David
“Today my husband found you. And you are giving fire info in Spanish!”—Marian
“Your reporting far exceeds any of the TV stations, and thank god you stream live.”—Skip C.
“No power but I had a battery operated radio (learned from the 1989 earthquake). Your station has helped beyond words. You have been the saving grace.”—Linda G.
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) presents the Marconi Award to radio stations and broadcasters who have provided extraordinary community service over the past year. The prestigious award is equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize for print, and the Oscar for film. Both KSRO and Pat Kerrigan were awarded the prestigious Marconi Awards at NAB’s Radio Show, a gathering of industry professionals, held in Orlando, Fla., on September 27.
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