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Napa County grand jury assesses emergency alerts, says October wildfires were ‘predictable’

Housing after the Napa County wildfires

A hillside home off Henry Road in south Napa County was fully engulfed in flames Oct. 9, 2017.

Last October’s wildfires were “predictable” and local officials should have done a better job at alerting people about not only evacuations but also the threat of fire, according to a Napa County grand jury report released Friday.

The fires that hit Napa County resulted in 69,247 acres burned, 1,051 structures destroyed or damaged, and seven deaths, the jury said.

Although the jury concedes that none of the fires could have been slowed down or put out, it concluded that reliance on Nixle alerts for emergency notifications was insufficient, the county’s Office of Emergency Services was understaffed, and that proposed disaster action plans from various local agencies are still lacking.

The jury has requested that the Napa County Board of Supervisors and Napa County Executive Officer Minh Tran respond to the report. County officials said Friday they could not respond to the report until the Board has had a chance to review and respond to it.

Board of Supervisors Chair Brad Wagenknecht, who had not had a chance to review the report as of Friday afternoon, said he anticipates being able to learn from it. The Board, he said, has already had several meetings discussing communication issues and other problems encountered during the fires.

Some of those discussions have led to change.

The county previously announced it will be expanding its warning system for emergencies like last year’s wildfires. It is also adding another, wider-reaching cell phone alert option and is installing a disaster warning siren to Napa County Sheriff patrol cars.

In its report, the grand jury recommended the county add the federal Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) to its emergency alert options – something that county officials have already said they would be doing. The IPAWS system provides Amber Alert-style warnings to all cell phones in a given area without signups required.

The jury recommended it because what the county was relying on before – Nixle, a subscription-based alert system that relies on cell towers – has limitations. Not only did Nixle services become “moot” once cell towers and transmission lines were knocked out in the fires, the jury said, only about 20 percent of county residents were signed up for it at the time. The jury also found that Nixle messages were not initially issued in Spanish and, once messages in Spanish were being sent out, the messages were poorly translated, leading to misunderstanding and frustration.

On top of that, the jury said, the many tourists who were in the area for the Safeway Open golf tournament at Silverado Resort & Spa, where fires began to rage the night of Oct. 8, were unlikely to have signed up to get local alerts.

The grand jury also expressed concern over the lack of staffing at OES, noting that the two employees responsible for sending out alerts both lived in areas affected by the fires and had to evacuate their own families before being able to get to the Sheriff’s Office to send any information out.

The first alert from the Napa County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) didn’t come out until 11:31, the jury said, more than 90 minutes after the Atlas Fire had been reported.

In its report, the jury acknowledged the difficulty in getting information out and said “a delay of this magnitude needs to be addressed.”

The City of Napa sent its first Nixle alert out at 11 p.m., the jury said.

In addition to improving its emergency alert system, the jury recommended alerts be sent out when there are official red flag weather warnings. The EOC team should also be alerted to these weather warnings so that they’re prepared to staff the center if there is an emergency.

“Given the dry, ferocious winds, warm temperature, and our natural landscape,” the fires were predictable, the jury said.

The grand jury commended local radio station KVON for providing updates and evacuation information during the fires.

“When the power went out and the public could no longer receive information from TV, the Internet or Nixle,” the jury said, “it was old technology that saved the day.”

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Maria Sestito is the former Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She now writes for the Register as a freelancer.

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