Sher­iff: Wild­fires point to use­ful­ness of old tech­nol­ogy

The Mercury News Weekend - - LOCAL NEWS -

UKIAH » Wild­fires that killed nine peo­ple in a re­mote North­ern Cal­i­for­nia county last month also crip­pled land lines, cell phones and in­ter­net ser­vice, the lo­cal sher­iff said Thurs­day, say­ing the dis­as­ter shows old-fash­ioned sirens and ham ra­dios have a place in emer­gen­cies.

Fail­ures of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy can cost “all con­nec­tiv­ity to the world,” Men­do­cino County Sher­iff Tom All man said at a news con­fer­ence. When lives are at stake, “we need to no­tify peo­ple im­me­di­ately that this is a real dis­as­ter, we need to get out of here.”

Nine of the 43 peo­ple who died in the dev­as­tat­ing North­ern Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires that be­gan Oct. 8 were in Men­do­cino County, in an area called Red­wood Val­ley, al­though other val­leys and ar­eas also burned in the county at the same time.

The Los Angeles Times, cit­ing in­ter­views and a re­view of dis­patch calls, re­ported Mon­day that the county ap­pears to have waited more than an hour af­ter fire was first re­ported in Red­wood Val­ley to or­der evac­u­a­tions there. The re­port said nu­mer­ous res­i­dents called 911 to re­port that they were trapped.

All­man did not specif­i­cally ad­dress the re­port Thurs­day or whether the com­mu­ni­ca­tions fail­ures slowed evac­u­a­tion ef­forts.

How­ever, he de­scribed the hec­tic first hours of the wild­fires, when dis­patch­ers strug­gled to field count­less emer­gency calls and law en­force­ment of­fi­cers strug­gled to grasp the scale of fires surg­ing around the area, as dry gusts drove em­bers and flames for miles.

“They’ve never taken this many calls be­fore,” All­man said of lo­cal dis­patch­ers. It was “the largest fire sit­u­a­tion ... in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory,” he said re­fer­ring to the fires that en­com­passed sev­eral coun­ties.

At the re­quest of au­thor­i­ties, the area’s util­ity, Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric, cut power in the first hours of the fires, out of con­cern that sparks would ig­nite still more blazes, All­man said.

Cell phones and in­ter­net ser­vice failed for many and CalFire lost “a good por­tion of its phone lines” in Men­do­cino County, the sher­iff said.

In­stead, emer­gency work­ers drove through neigh­bor­hoods order­ing res­i­dents out over bull­horns, and knock­ing on doors.

Ham ra­dio op­er­a­tors, mean­while, vol­un­teered for work in the dis­as­ter, help­ing to co­or­di­nate the trans­porta­tion of vic­tims to hos­pi­tals, he said.


Peo­ple walk past a fallen trans­former and downed power lines on Parker Hill Road in Santa Rosa on Oct. 10.

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