As flames raced, some were left in the dark

Not all res­i­dents got cell­phone alerts about the fires in Napa and Sonoma — but the tech­nol­ogy ex­ists

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Phil Wil­lon, Chris Mege­rian, Paige St. John and Rong-Gong Lin II

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — As fast­mov­ing fires in­vaded neigh­bor­hoods across North­ern Cal­i­for­nia this week, res­i­dents of Napa and Sonoma coun­ties said they were alerted to the ap­proach­ing dis­as­ter by fran­tic shouts from neigh­bors, honk­ing horns, blar­ing smoke alarms and even the noise of an Amer­i­can flag whip­ping in the in­tense winds.

But it’s be­com­ing in­creas­ingly clear that at least some res­i­dents did not re­ceive warn­ings on their cell­phones sim­i­lar to an Amber Alert. The so-called Wire­less Emer­gency Alert sends loud, screech­ing alarms or vi­bra­tions to all cell­phones in a geo­graphic area un­less a user specif­i­cally opts out.

On Wednesday, of­fi­cials faced ques­tions about why au­thor­i­ties could not reach more peo­ple as the fires bar­reled to­ward homes late Sun­day night and early Mon­day morn­ing.

Sonoma County Sher­iff Rob Gior­dano said Wednesday that the county sent out warn­ings through its SoCoAlert ser­vice and Nixle, both sys­tems that re­quire res­i­dents to reg­is­ter in ad­vance in or­der to re­ceive mes­sages. The county also sent out re­verse 911 calls to land­lines in un­in­cor­po­rated ar­eas. Santa Rosa, where block after block of sub­ur­ban homes were de­stroyed, sent out alerts through SoCoAlert, Nixle and on so­cial me­dia.

Sonoma County is among dozens of Cal­i­for­nia ju­ris­dic­tions that ap­plied for and re­ceived author­ity from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to is­sue Wire­less Emer­gency Alerts. It’s un­clear whether the county tried to use the sys­tem this week and, if so, why it didn’t reach some peo­ple.

Napa County is­sued alerts through

Nixle, but of­fi­cials said some res­i­dents had trou­ble re­ceiv­ing the warn­ings.

The death toll from the fires rose Wednesday to at least 23, with some vic­tims sim­ply un­able to out­run the flames. An es­ti­mated 3,500 homes, busi­nesses and other struc­tures were burned.

In the dev­as­tated Cof­fey Park neigh­bor­hood of Santa Rosa, some res­i­dents of now-burned homes said they were sur­prised they didn’t get an alert on their phones.

Michael Des­mond, 59, a re­tired home­land se­cu­rity in­ves­ti­ga­tor, said he was ly­ing in bed Sun­day night skim­ming news sto­ries on his iPad when he heard a com­mo­tion out­side. Fi­nally, he heard what a fire­fighter was say­ing: “Firestorm. Get out of here now! Take noth­ing! Just go!”

“So I got my dog. I got my wal­let. Got my keys. And left,” he said Wednesday, as he walked down the street of his neigh­bor­hood car­ry­ing a charred mail­box, one of the few things he was able to sal­vage from his home de­stroyed by wild­fire. “I think they were to­tally un­pre­pared for this.”

A few blocks away, high school teacher Anna Solano, 50, said she also re­ceived no phone warn­ing.

Solano, who on Wednesday sifted through the ashes of her home look­ing for keys to equip­ment lock­ers and class­rooms, had smelled smoke ear­lier Sun­day evening but thought there was just a house fire in the area. About 2:30 a.m. Mon­day, a man knocked on her door and kept bang­ing, wak­ing up Solano’s dog, who even­tu­ally woke her up.

“That gen­tle­man saved our lives. A stranger,” she said. “We saw the fire com­ing. We left here in five min­utes.”

The fire — one of the most de­struc­tive in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory — moved through north­ern Santa Rosa swiftly, with winds clock­ing 50 mph car­ry­ing em­bers that ig­nited nu­mer­ous spot fires, burn­ing down en­tire neigh­bor­hoods. “The fire came through the night. It was rapidly mov­ing,” said Mark Ghi­lar­ducci, direc­tor of the Cal­i­for­nia Gover­nor’s Of­fice of Emer­gency Ser­vices. “Some peo­ple were awak­ened while the fire was ac­tu­ally on their doorstep.”

Sonoma County of­fi­cials said it will take time to de­ter­mine the reach of the alerts they tried to is­sue.

“I don’t know how ef­fec­tive that was,” said Gior­dano, the Sonoma County sher­iff. “It’s going to take a long time un­til we un­der­stand that.”

The Wire­less Emer­gency Alert sys­tem was rolled out in 2012, and Cal­i­for­nia used it to send an Amber Alert for the first time in 2013. The alerts are trans­mit­ted on an ex­clu­sive fre­quency that can reach many peo­ple at the same time, and Amber Alerts — which no­tify the pub­lic of the case of an ab­ducted child — have proven ef­fec­tive.

Alerts like these have been used to warn New York­ers about the ap­proach of Hur­ri­cane Sandy and tell the peo­ple of Moore, Okla., about the ar­rival of a mas­sive tor­nado.

But some lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions don’t use them — or don’t know how.

This year, San Jose of­fi­cials were roundly chas­tised for fail­ing to warn the pub­lic about de­struc­tive flood­wa­ters be­fore they over­flowed through densely pop­u­lated neigh­bor­hoods along Coy­ote Creek amid the win­ter’s heavy rains.

In July, a with­er­ing re­port con­cluded that in San Jose, “there was a gen­eral lack of in­sti­tu­tional knowl­edge” on how to broad­cast alerts on the Wire­less Emer­gency Alert sys­tem. San Jose it­self at the time was not set up to is­sue such alerts on its own. Santa Clara County did have the abil­ity to do so, but no one from the city asked the county to re­lease an alert on its be­half.

For lo­cal au­thor­i­ties to use the fed­eral sys­tem, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties need to apply to the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency to be­come an alert­ing author­ity. The city of Los Angeles, Or­ange County, San Fran­cisco and Sacra­mento County are among the ju­ris­dic­tions that have reg­is­tered to use the wire­less alert sys­tem.

Napa County is not listed. Heather Ruiz, a spokes­woman for the Napa County Of­fice of Emer­gency Ser­vices, said her county has not been us­ing the Wire­less Emer­gency Alert sys­tem and was not sure if it had the abil­ity to do so. In­stead, of­fi­cials is­sue alerts through Nixle.

Mark Eg­gan, Napa County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy chief, said 1,500 peo­ple re­sponded to a Nixle alert Sun­day night by click­ing on a link to the depart­ment’s web server, caus­ing it to crash. Dur­ing the server’s crash, peo­ple could read the brief mes­sage on their phones, but the link to get fur­ther in­for­ma­tion did not work. Eg­gan said the sys­tem had never been taxed like that be­fore.

This week, Napa County of­fi­cials said it’s pos­si­ble alerts were ham­pered by fire dam­age to cell­phone tow­ers. The fragility of the cell­phone tower net­work — high­lighted by nat­u­ral dis­as­ters in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico — caused the chair­man of the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion, Ajit Pai, to put the spot­light on tech­nol­ogy in cell­phones that can be used to re­ceive alerts through a chip that can re­ceive FM ra­dio sig­nals, which can work even when cell­phone tow­ers are pow­er­less or de­stroyed.

Though other cell­phone man­u­fac­tur­ers equip their phones with FM chips, re­cent iPhone mod­els do not have them.

In a state­ment, Ap­ple said the com­pany “cares deeply about the safety of our users” and noted that users can dial emer­gency ser­vices and re­ceive Amber Alerts and emer­gency weather no­ti­fi­ca­tions. The com­pany did not re­spond to ques­tions about whether it would in­stall FM chips in fu­ture mod­els of the phone.

Mar­cus Yam Los Angeles Times

JOUR­NEY’S END mo­bile home park in Santa Rosa is left lev­eled by wild­fire. An es­ti­mated 3,500 struc­tures have burned in the firestorm.

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