On the front line in the Santa Rosa wildfires

When fast-moving wildfires roared into parts of Santa Rosa, California, in late September 2020, residents and workers were asked to evacuate immediately.

This time the region was well prepared, as lessons had been learnt from the devastating firestorm that hit Santa Rosa in 2017, which killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes.

The 2020 fires caused two weeks of mandatory evacuations in the region and it was almost a month before the fires were completely contained. Postmaster Roosevelt Sargent III from the Santa Rosa post office, which acted as a lifeline for many local residents, shares his story of the event.

How were you first made aware of the wildfires? 
I was made aware via a Nixle alert about midnight the night the fire was approaching our area. A Nixle alert is an emergency system that sends messages to resident’s cells phones from the local fire and police departments. Another resource for fire alerts is the SoCo Emergency preparedness site, which monitors fires, provides live heat maps and gives updates to the communities. After that, I received calls from my supervisor and neighboring post offices about the growing fire and mandatory evacuation. The next morning I had a meeting with the USPS Emergency Preparedness Team to go over the logistics about how we were going to safely proceed with mail operations.
How did the wildfires impact the post office?  
The closest the fires got to the Santa Rosa Post Office was about five miles away. One day the sun never came out in many parts of the bay area due to the smoke and ash in the air. It looked like nighttime all day. Also, there was longer than usual lines at our retail counters for customers picking up their mail that was on hold due to the fires. We also had to get extra equipment sent to our post office to store the mail that was not being delivered because of the fires.
How did the wildfires impact your day-to-day job? 
The fires impacted mail operations in many ways. Even though there was a natural disaster happening all around us, everyone in the community still depended on USPS to provide a much-needed service and we are proud to be part of the fabric of the community. It’s been that way for 245 years. As the postmaster, I did not get a lot of sleep during these fires. I had letter carriers delivering mail and the wind could change at any moment, moving those fires in a different direction, possibly near our employees, putting them in harm’s way. I spent a lot of time monitoring the wildfires and working on a contingency plan if needed. The fires became the most important thing regarding how they could impact mail delivery operations.
How important is the local postal service during extreme events like this? 
We are business as usual no matter what goes on around us. We know the customers depend on the postal service; I like to use the term “3M” – Money, Medication, and Merchandise. All the important things that get delivered in the US mail. It’s always all hands on deck approach during a crisis or pandemic with the postal service. Even as the ash falls from the sky like snowflakes, the men and women of the USPS will always suite up and hit the streets.

With this in mind, I would like to thank my carriers, clerks, maintenance team, supervisors, surrounding postmasters, and all the employees in our region who helped during the wildfires. Managing people during these events really helps me focus on decisions that will be best for the team. The mail and packages do not stop coming to the facility during these times. Each day, as the postmaster, I walked into the facility and tried to show and promote confidence to everyone in the building. Even if at times the deck might seem stacked against us, as the postmaster, I have to maintain the composure and focus necessary to provide support for the employees and get the mail delivered. I’m very grateful for the employees of the Santa Rosa Post Office.