Alert system examined after deadly wildfires
SANTA ROSA, Calif. Communities in wildfireprone 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 left at least 31 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 a variety of ways to send out warnings, but the alert systems rely on mobile phones, landlines or the internet to rouse residents.
State fire officials said Wednesday 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 even 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. The county also uses a mobile phone app that can receive messages, but it, too, requires a resident to opt-in to participate.
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.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department said the county’s emergency alert service texted thousands of warnings to residents to flee Sunday night. However, nearly 80 cellphone towers were knocked out or badly damaged, officials said.
Some evacuees escaped only when they realized the fire was nearly at their doors.
An aerial view Wednesday shows homes in Santa Rosa, Calif., that were destroyed.