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Napa Valley Register Editorial Board

Calistoga's Nixle alerts: An outstanding way to serve the community

  • Updated
Calistoga evacuation lifted

Lincoln Avenue in downtown Calistoga remained empty Sunday morning, hours before the city lifted an evacuation order it had imposed a day after the Glass Fire broke out Sept. 27. Containment of the blaze reached 17% as of 7 a.m. Sunday.

Being under threat of wildfire tears at a community like no other disaster. All the more so if most or all of that community is under evacuation orders.

The isolation of evacuation, the gnawing fear and uncertainty, the inability to see and touch your property and your town create a fertile field for misinformation, rumor, and panic.

We’ve seen this before, with the horrors of the 2017 firestorms, the 2019 Kincade fire, the LNU Lightning Complex and Glass fires of this year, and the many heavy smoke events that led many people to leave the area voluntarily.

The key to keeping a community together under such stress is communication.

In 2017, the county’s first experience with the modern scourge of megafires, the communication was spotty at best. All jurisdictions across the region were criticized for their failure to warn of the fires’ rapid spread. Some messages they sent out by Nixle were confusing, contradictory, and poorly worded. The communication efforts suffered from poor or non-existent messaging in Spanish.

Since then, all the jurisdictions have improved vastly, as has technology, such as Nixle’s Spanish translation service, which reportedly now works reasonably well.

In the case of the Glass Fire, there were definitely missteps, such as the county’s ill-fated fire danger alert on Sept. 30, using the federal Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), that set cellphones buzzing in areas far from the danger of the Glass Fire. That generated widespread confusion and fear while county officials scrambled to clean up the mess.

But we’ve seen some notable successes as well. Yountville kept residents calm and well informed via Nixle, assuring them that there was no danger to the town. St. Helena had Mayor Geoff Ellsworth deliver detailed daily video updates on Facebook, along with releasing frequent written updates on the city website. And the IPAWS mess notwithstanding, the county did a good job alerting people to the status and location of evacuation warnings and orders.

One effort among all of them, however, stood out. Calistoga, which was completely evacuated for a week, developed a system of regular updates, delivered through Nixle reports regularly at 9 a.m., 1 p.m., and 6 p.m.

Each update was brimming with details, including where the fire was burning, how it was moving, and what fire crews were doing to contain it. They passed on information on how law enforcement was protecting property and the status of power outages in the city. They contained detailed instructions for safe evacuation routes and, when the mandatory order was lifted, safe routes to return home. They outlined when key businesses and services would return to normal.

Perhaps most importantly, the updates help quash online rumors and misreporting by outside news outlets that suggested that there had been fire damage inside the city. There never was any wildfire damage and when there was an unrelated shed fire, the city quickly released information debunking reports of active wildfire inside the city.

We met last week with Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning to discuss the strategy. He said they built on the lessons from the 2017 Tubbs Fire, the first time the city was evacuated: They recognized the need to provide reliable, transparent, and matter-of-fact information.

After the first day or so of the Glass Fire, it became obvious that misinformation was running rampant on social media, particularly on NextDoor but on Facebook and others as well, fueled in part by inaccurate reports from outside broadcast outlets.

That’s why the city settled on the highly-detailed, three-times-per-day format. Officials chose to stick tightly to Nixle as their main communication outlet, as opposed to the website, allowing them to focus their limited staff resources on a single stream of information.

The regular updates became must-reading for the widely scattered Calistoga residents, which include Napa Valley Register Editor Sean Scully, and even beyond – Canning told us that the city has far more Nixle subscribers than residents, which suggests a broader interest in the fate of the city.

To be sure, the system was not perfect, particularly because of the limits of technology. Nixle itself has character limits that keep the text-versions of the alerts short and force readers to click through to the full report, though readers can also get the full report sent to an email address. And cell phone services tend to become unreliable in fire situations as their infrastructure suffers damage or loses power, limiting the reach of the alerts.

There are limits as well to the public’s access to technology. Older or low-income residents might not have cell phones and computers, or might be unfamiliar with their use.

Canning admitted those limits, but said that pushing out Nixle alerts to as many people as possible tends to spread reliable information through personal networks and the news media, thus reaching technology-challenged people indirectly. The strategy also tends to limit the temptation of residents to call or email city officials in large numbers seeking information, saving limited time and resources to communicate with those few who could not access the information online.

Despite its limitations, Calistoga’s model worked well. We commend the city for its thorough and proactive communication program and we recommend all local government agencies learn from its success.

Watch Now: Calistoga evacuated following Glass Fire threat

Photos: The Glass Fire’s aftermath in Deer Park

The Napa Valley Register Editorial Board consists of NVR President Davis Taylor, Editor Sean Scully, and public members Cindy Webber, Ed Shenk, Mary Jean Mclaughlin and Chris Hammaker.

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