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Emergency Alert Assessments Follow Northern Calif. Wildfire Deaths

Residents say some emergency alert channels failed when the wildfires took Northern California by surprise.

Emergency Alert Assessments Follow Northern Calif. Wildfire Deaths

The northern California wildfires, which have claimed the lives of at least 23 people, were aided by high winds and low humidity.

California fire officials say they will be reviewing their emergency alert and communication capabilities following the deadly wildfires in the northern part of the state this week.

Some residents have complained about not being notified of the wildfires sooner as officials scrambled to respond to the fast-moving blaze.

Communities in the state rely on a variety of emergency communications tools for wildfires, including text messages, phone calls, email alerts and social media. But many of those channels require residents to opt in, and some were rendered ineffective when the fires knocked out power in homes and destroyed cell towers, according to the Associated Press.

Now residents, local officials and emergency responders are questioning their emergency alert methods in the face of wildfires that have left at least 23 people dead. Adding to the problems are strong winds and dry weather that has made these fires particularly dangerous.

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

Perhaps because the wildfires caught authorities by surprise, some residents say they never received any advanced warning until the flames were nearly at their door. Still, Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said it’s too early to evaluate emergency alert operations.

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

But some residents are already calling for emergency alert upgrades, and in some cases current methods of communication clearly fell short.

Sonoma County, for instance, relies on text messages, emails, automated phone calls and also offers a mobile app for emergency messages. But the text messages, emails and the mobile app require residents to sign up, and the phone calls only go to landlines. Additionally, officials say almost 80 cellphone towers were knocked out or damaged by the wildfires.

The county also posted emergency messages on its website, Facebook and Twitter pages.

Sonoma County Sheriff Sgt. Spencer Crum says he learned of the wildfire only when he smelled smoke while on duty at the department’s headquarters Sunday night. Sgt. Crum and about a dozen other deputies quickly drove to rural neighborhoods with their sirens blaring telling residents to flee on their loud speakers. The deputies also went door to door.

“The world has changed. People don’t have landlines anymore,” Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said. “The other thing to keep in mind, the fire was unbelievably fast.”

About the Author

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Zach Winn is a journalist living in the Boston area. He was previously a reporter for Wicked Local and graduated from Keene State College in 2014, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minoring in political science.

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