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Disaster response

Local and state officials failed residents fleeing California wildfires, audit shows

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Camp Fire cleanup (copy)

A vehicle rests in front of a home leveled by the Camp Fire in Paradise in 2018.

California’s auditor slammed state and county emergency management officials Thursday for inadequate disaster and evacuation planning, and called for changes in state law to protect vulnerable residents, after a series of fast-moving wildfires left many people trapped on clogged roadways with little time to escape.

The auditor criticized disaster planning in Butte, Sonoma and Ventura counties, home to deadly and destructive wildfires in 2017 and 2018. The report also went after the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, saying it was lax in helping counties prepare for disasters.

The most destructive wildfires in state history burned thousands and homes and claimed more than 120 lives. In the aftermath of each fire, residents recounted horrifying stories of not receiving evacuation alerts, massive traffic jams and shelters overrun with people. In the Camp Fire in Paradise, several people burned to death trapped in their vehicles on roads choked with gridlock.

The auditor, Elaine Howle, found that some of those problems could have been better addressed if officials hadn’t ignored guidance from federal disaster planners to assess the needs of their most vulnerable populations, including the disabled, elderly and people who don’t speak English.

Howle’s office said the counties also failed to provide adequate transportation and evacuation shelters for their most vulnerable residents; they had emergency alert systems that failed to provide emergency telephone alerts to non-English speakers; and the counties didn’t take advantage of current cellphone technology to notify people during emergencies.

“As a result, some people likely did not receive potentially life-saving emergency information in a language that they could understand, the report says. “Moreover, despite having access to technology that could reach all cell phones in their evacuation zones, Butte and Sonoma did not send alerts using that technology. Instead, both counties sent messages through notification systems that reach landlines and reach a person’s cell phone only if that person has preregistered to receive emergency alerts from the county.”

The report stops short of saying any lives would have been saved if the current standards had been in place, saying it’s impossible to know for sure, but the Howle’s office nonetheless urged California lawmakers to require state OES officials to periodically review local emergency management plans. The report notes that Florida and Texas already have laws on the books requiring that.

Following the 2017 wildfires, the Napa County Grand Jury in June 2018 issued a report saying that such conflagrations were “predictable” and that local officials should have done a better job at alerting people not only about evacuations but also the threat of fire.

The Napa wildfires burned 69,000 acres, destroyed or damaged 1,051 structures and resulted in seven deaths, the grand jury said.

Since then, Napa County has upgraded its notification systems, with a further test planned for Dec. 11 to learn how it is working.

The latest state auditor’s report mirrors key findings in McClatchy’s investigation with the USA Today Network “Destined to Burn,” which revealed earlier this year that scores of fire-prone communities across California have limited ability to evacuate population during emergencies, and that fewer than one in four have a robust evacuation plan available to the public.

The investigation revealed that California does not require communities to plan for wildfire evacuations. And while experts recommend cities and counties develop evacuation plans, there is disagreement over what should be included in those strategies. Previous McClatchy investigations have also revealed widespread failures of residents receiving evacuation alerts during wildfires.

Counties defend actions

County officials pushed back sharply on the auditor’s conclusions. Butte, in particular, argued the rural and impoverished county was as prepared as it possibly could have been for the unprecedented catastrophe of the November 2018 Camp Fire. The fire killed 85 people, more than any other in California history, and destroyed much of the town of Paradise.

“It is important to understand the magnitude and speed of the Camp Fire, a fire so devastating and fast that no plan could adequately address it,” wrote Sheriff Kory Honea and Chief Administrative Officer Shari McCracken in a lengthy response to the auditor. “No jurisdiction in California has sufficient resources for a catastrophic and large scale disaster like the Camp Fire.”

Among other things, the Butte officials defended their largely unsuccessful attempts to notify residents of the fire’s spread in the early hours, saying the collapse of cell towers and other infrastructure overwhelmed the system. They also said the auditors ignored Butte’s efforts, in the years before the Camp Fire, to conduct evacuation drills and implement other pre-disaster planning.

“There will always be some portion of the public who will not know what the plan is,” they wrote.

Butte’s sheriff and administrative officer also complained that the state audit came at a difficult time because the county is still in the midst of disaster recovery in Paradise.

Responding to auditors’ questions forced county officials “to divert their time to accommodate the audit and prepare this response, in place of providing vital services to residents,” they wrote. The auditor’s staff said it gave Butte officials weeks of additional time to respond.

The auditors also criticized state disaster planners for not helping counties better prepare, despite being mandated to do that.

“Cal OES has failed to provide important resources to help local jurisdictions in planning, even when state law has required it to do so, the report said. “For example, Cal OES has not complied with state law requiring it to provide guidance to local jurisdictions related to strategies for identifying people with access and functional needs and for evacuating people with disabilities. As a result, local jurisdictions — like those that we reviewed — may struggle to adequately plan for how to best assist those people.”

The report faulted OES for not completing its required “after-action reports,” which are supposed to share lessons learned with county and local officials. In a written response to the auditor, OES Director Mark Ghilarducci said his department has struggled to keep up with a staggering workload as California has endured multiple disasters in recent years.

Ghilarducci added that even though the reports haven’t always been completed, the state has conducted multiple “debriefs” and “feedback loops” to help county emergency officials learn how to deal with disasters.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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