Alert sys­tem ex­am­ined af­ter deadly wild­fires

The Arizona Republic - - The West - BRIAN SKOLOFF MICHAEL R. BLOOD

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.

JUSTIN SUL­LI­VAN/GETTY IM­AGES

An aerial view Wed­nes­day shows homes in Santa Rosa, Calif., that were de­stroyed.

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