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Natural disasters

Emergency alerts under scrutiny after deadly California wildfires

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 October, 2017, 8:23pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 October, 2017, 8:29pm

Communities in wildfire-prone Northern California have an array of emergency systems designed to alert residents of danger: text messages, phone calls, emails and tweets. But after days of raging blazes that left at least 23 dead, authorities said those methods will be assessed.

The fast-moving fires, strengthened by fierce winds and nearly absent humidity, began to burn through the state’s fabled wine country Sunday night. Counties used various ways to send out warnings, but the alert systems rely on mobile phones, landlines or the internet.

State fire officials on Wednesday said that while the current priority is getting people out of active fires, they would be following up on the methods used and whether it was even possible to reach everyone with so little time to react.

“People were in bed, asleep at midnight, and these fires came down on these communities with no warning within minutes,” said state fire agency Chief Ken Pimlott. “There was little time to notify anybody by any means.”

In emergencies where a few minutes or seconds can save lives, the notification systems have inherent blind spots. Not everyone will get the message. Sonoma County uses a service that sends out text messages or emails when an evacuation is ordered, but residents have to sign up to receive them.

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The county also uses a mobile phone app that can receive messages, but again it requires people to opt-in.

The county can also trigger automated emergency calls to landlines in an area threatened by fire, but that would only reach homes with those phones.

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department said thousands of text warnings were sent to residents on Sunday night. However, nearly 80 mobile phone towers were destroyed or badly damaged, officials said.

Some evacuees only escaped when they realised the fire was nearly at their doors.

David Leal was at his home in Santa Rosa about 11.30pm. Sunday when strong winds began stirring and he smelled smoke.

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He called emergency services and was assured there was no need to worry unless he saw flames. He looked outside and could not see any, so he and his wife went to bed.

At 2am, they were abruptly woken up when a sudden blast of wind knocked a lamp over. Leal looked out at neighbours who were packing up to get out. There was never a phone call, or a knock on the door.

“We didn’t know what was going on, but just instinct led us to agree on the decision to evacuate,” he said.

State Senator Bill Dodd of Napa said he received an alert to evacuate on Sunday night, but by that time he had already left. His power had kicked off at 10pm.

He looked up a hillside by his home and “it was the most incredible fire coming at us”, Dodd said. “A lot of it is common sense.”

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Sonoma County Sheriff Sergeant Spencer Crum was on duty on Sunday night when he smelled smoke in the car park of the department’s headquarters in Santa Rosa. Ducking inside, calls started coming in about fire in the nearby hills.

He and about a dozen other deputies raced to two rural neighbourhoods with sirens blaring and warning residents on their loudspeakers of the fast-approaching blaze. Deputies went door-to-door urging residents to flee.

“Unfortunately, some of them were disbelieving and wanted to argue,” Crum said.

When the fire got too close, they raced down the hill to warn others to flee.

“They didn’t need any convincing,” Crum said. “By that time, you could see the flames approaching.”

Sonoma County also posts evacuation notices on a website, Facebook, and Twitter.

“Various counties use different ways to push information out to the public. And to my knowledge they were used by the counties where they could be used,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

“I think it’s still too premature to determine what actually worked and what didn’t,” Ghilarducci said.

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said his office did the best it could to notify people of evacuations after the blaze broke out Sunday, but he acknowledged the limitations in the systems.

“The world has changed. People don’t have landlines any more,” Giordano said. “The other thing to keep in mind, the fire was unbelievably fast.”