As fires that would prove devastating burned across the North Bay late Sunday, Sonoma County considered sending a mass alert to cell phones in the region to warn of the rapidly spreading flames. But county officials decided against it, worried that doing so might create widespread panic and hinder the ability of first responders to combat the blazes.
It’s unclear how much that decision might have affected area residents’ responses to the deadly wildfires, particularly since many cell phone towers were destroyed in the blaze, making such messages undeliverable. But it adds to concerns that some in the fires’ paths were not alerted about the danger, leaving them little time to flee.
As of Thursday evening, 15 people were confirmed dead in the Sonoma County fires, and officials expected the total to rise.
In the early hours of the blaze, officials at the Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department discussed sending something similar to an Amber Alert to cell phones in the area, but chose not to since it would have gone to tens of thousands of people not in immediate danger.
The type of warning, called a Wireless Emergency Alert, can only target phones in large geographic areas, according to Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Coordinator Zachary Hamill, who made the decision not to send the wireless alert together with the county’s emergency manager, Christopher Helgren.
“If I had done the Wireless Emergency Alert I would have been notifying Petaluma, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, Sonoma — all of the cities and unincorporated areas in the county,” Hamill said. “And I didn’t need to do that, I needed to focus on who specifically needed” help. Jennifer Larocque, a spokeswoman for Sonoma County, said that sending such a widespread warning could have made it hard for first responders to combat the fire and help those in need.
“Providing mass information to people not affected could have caused mass traffic backups, which could have impacted emergency service providers and delayed emergency response,” Larocque said.
The Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department is one of dozens of California agencies that can send Wireless Emergency Alerts, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the service. All major cell phone carriers have the technology, and everyone targeted by the alerts receives them unless they have actively opted not to get them.
Use of the alerts — in which only 90 characters can be transmitted — has seen mixed success in California when used for wildfire warnings.
Although there have been few instances of the alerts being deployed in situations similar to the Wine Country fires, on at least one occasion the technology seemed to create more confusion than help. In June, a swath of Southern California was ordered to “evacuate now” as crews battled a fire in Riverside County. Neighboring police and fire departments took to social media to explain the order did not apply to their areas.
Rather than deploy the wireless alert system, Sonoma County emergency officials tried to warn residents and issue evacuation orders through multiple avenues, including broadcasting on the radio, robo-calling residents, sending email and text alerts and physically knocking on doors or announcing orders through P.A. systems.
Still, many people, some in areas decimated by the fires, said they never received an official warning and fled only after being awakened by the smell of smoke, the sound of sirens, or neighbors pounding on their doors.
One of the warnings was a “reverse 911” call, which went out to all landline telephones in unincorporated parts of Sonoma County. “We can circle this neighborhood, and it will call all those houses,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said at a Wednesday news conference.
Along with automated calls to landlines, the county has other alert systems for cell phones, but they are available only to those who register to receive them. “If you don’t sign your cell phone up, you don’t get that service,” Giordano said.
One system, called Nixle, is widely used by law enforcement. Joel Rosen, chief marketing officer of Nixle’s parent company Everbridge, said that prior to the fires, about 300,000 people in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties were signed up to receive the alerts, about a third of the total population. Since the fires began, the number of people signed up for alerts has sharply increased, Rosen said.
Another emergency notification system in Sonoma County, SoCo Alerts, had 10,557 people signed up in mid-June. Just 7,658 of those were in Santa Rosa — a city of more than 175,000 that was devastated by the fire.
Santa Rosa Fire Department spokesman Paul Lowenthal helped make the call to evacuate parts of the city early Monday morning as the Tubbs Fire raced toward residential and commercial neighborhoods. When emergency responders arrived to help residents, smoke was already choking the air, embers were falling, and cell service was out, he said.
“During your typical California wildfire you craft messages, get evacuation plans, run them through law enforcement and operations and everyone agrees on them and works out sheltering needs,” Lowenthal said. “This was not that type of incident. ... This was nothing like anything I have ever experienced around here.”
Hamill, emergency coordinator of the Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department, said the county will review its decision not to issue a Wireless Emergency Alert when they are no longer fighting the blaze.
“It’s possible we could have said, ‘Hey, be on the lookout, if you feel like your life is in danger, please evacuate,’ but we didn’t obviously,” Hamill said. “We’ve never done an evacuation to this scale ever before, so this will have to be one of those after action items we review and determine how we can do this better next time.”