Wildfires raged, but few received emergency alerts

Susan Gorin lost her home. She could have lost much more.

When October wildfires engulfed Sonoma County, California, Gorin was in Denver eagerly awaiting the birth of her grandson. But after catching word of the inferno, Gorin, a Sonoma County Supervisor, decided to fly home early to offer her support.

The Tubbs fire killed at least 22 people and caused more than $1.2 billion in damages.

Only there wasn’t much she could do.

The wildfire raged. Many people fled. Others lost their homes entirely or worse — their lives. At least 22 people died in the wildfires, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, making it one of the deadliest wildfires in state history.

Adding to the distress, scores of residents never received an emergency alert.

“Many people saw the red glow and assumed it was in another area and didn’t pay too much attention to it until the flames were coming down the hill to them,” said Gorin, former Mayor of Santa Rosa, California.

“Most of the alert systems happened neighbor to neighbor, friend to friend, telephone calls, knocking on each other’s doors.”

Sonoma County officials decided against a widespread emergency alert, stating that it would have done more harm than good to the evacuation efforts.

“It would cause unnecessary evacuations and delays for emergency vehicles reaching people in areas in need,” county spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque told The Mercury News. “In order not to slow down response to people actually in need of help, we chose not to send the notice.”

Jim Veillux, VP of marketing at Hyper-Reach, an emergency notification system used by law enforcement, schools and community groups, thought a widespread alert would be important to send to the community during a time of need. But that’s not to say Veillux doesn’t understand the difficulties of delivering precise emergency alerts.

“There are a bunch of things in the way of implementation,” Veillux said. “Initially, there wasn’t much precision in the targeting of the message. You had county-wide messages being delivered to everyone that were only relevant for a piece of the county. … That was particularly cited in one of the recent California wildfires.”

Instead, Sonoma County officials sent out Nixle SMS and a system called SoCo Alerts to warn people via their cell phones, though those emergency alerting systems require a person to sign up for the warnings.

“There was some anger (over not getting alerts),” Gorin said. “There’s still PTSD and shell shock in trying to understand how fast the fires engulfed our communities. Many people are grateful at whatever alert system was delivered to them. A number of people did receive wireless alerts, and a number of people heard knocking on their doors or the fire departments and sheriffs driving through the streets with their speakers on stating, ‘Get out now.’”

Is there a better way?
One fix for a better emergency alert system, Veillux deduced, could come from a mobile application. He said “an awful lot of states and counties” have some kind of app for emergency management, but almost none can send, capture or accept a messages to or from users.

“It would be relatively simple to install push-notification technology on an emergency app,” Veillux said. “If you could do that, you can use the location services associated with the phone and you can send messages with much more precision.”

It’s something for officials to ponder, and Veillux believes it might be an initiative that the Federation for Internet Alerts (FIA), a nonprofit that delivers AMBER Alerts and weather warnings to mobile devices and public signage, could tackle in the future.

“There’s a lot more that FIA can do that goes way beyond what’s currently being offered,” Veillux said. “It takes a long time for the federal government to get anything done. In some ways, FIA might be treated with more credibility.”

FIA reinforced its reputation as an industry leader by serving more than 20 million geo-targeted Red Flag Warnings on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to devices in the area of wildfires.  The ability for FIA to render alerts across a wide array of browsers and signage is likely to bring more awareness during emergencies like this.

For its part, Gorin said Sonoma County is looking at new ways to improve recognition time when dealing with wildfires.

“We absolutely need to rethink the alert systems and rethink how we approach the early ignition of fires,” Gorin said. “We’re considering investing in cameras on tall poles over hills to see where the lightning strikes or ignition occurs with utility lines in order to bring in air resources as quickly as possible. There are a variety of strategies we’re looking at.”

House of ash
Several months later and the people of Sonoma County are still stamping out the aftermath of the wildfire.

“They’re not necessarily angry at the lack of alert system now, they’re trying to think about how they recover from the trauma of that night and the enormous amount of loss,” Gorin said.

It’s a feeling that’s hard to forget. A few days after the fires died, Gorin recalled seeing the plot of land where her home once stood.

“Maybe I’m a little strange, but I was actually fascinated and awed by the power of a firestorm,” Gorin said. “The sheer devastation that reduced a 2300-square foot home with tall ceilings into inches of ash.”

More than 5,000 structures were destroyed in the wildfire now known as the Tubbs Fire. The Los Angeles Times reported the fire caused $1.2 billion in damages.

The destruction from California wildfires won’t stop anytime soon, but hopefully the manner in which people receive alerts does.

Logan Malloy wrote this story on behalf of FIA. For any questions, email Logan at lmalloy@conversantmedia.com.