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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Saying California wildfires are only getting worse — and the public needs a better early warning system — North Bay lawmakers announced plans Thursday to bring new legislation that would mandate wireless alerts in all 58 counties and set standards for their use.

The proposal came as out-of-control blazes raged across Southern California and two months after an October inferno in Sonoma County burned 137 square miles, destroyed 5,100 homes and killed 24 people.

Critics say Sonoma County emergency officials erred in not forcing mass alerts onto cellphones as the Oct. 8 firestorm erupted, choosing instead to warn people through opt-in and landline programs that reached only a fraction of the county.

Ventura and Los Angeles counties, in contrast, used the Amber Alert-style cellphone messages this week to reach millions of cellphone users with warnings about ongoing wildfires.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said the opt-in system used by Sonoma County — which did not reach many in harm’s way in October — was inadequate.

He and other elected officials are calling for swift action in the form of legislation next month to ensure statewide wireless alert standards are adopted to protect people in future disasters.

“What we know is the size and scope of wildfire events in California are getting worse and its become clear there are shortcomings in our emergency alert system,” McGuire said. “We are all under the belief that residents deserve timely notification and updated information. And it needs to be uniform across the state in big cities and small.”

McGuire, a former Sonoma County supervisor, stopped short of criticizing Christopher Helgren, the county’s emergency manager, for not activating the wireless emergency alert system, saying the county was conducting its own audit of the process. But he said he would not wait for any findings before advancing a bill.

“It has become crystal clear there needs to be a statewide standard for emergency alerts related to natural disasters,” McGuire said. “We can’t afford to wait another year.”

Helgren defended his decision not to use wireless alerts for fear they would go out to people not in the fires’ path and create unneeded panic and confusion.

He said in an interview last month that he had ruled out use of the forced alerts and that they had not even been considered as an option in the initial hours of the October firestorm.

“I believe the system we utilized was the best system for alert and warning that we were required to do,” Helgren said.

He did not know when the state Department of Emergency Services would complete its independent review.

However, he said proposed changes to wireless alerts to increase the 90-character limit and provide an internet link would mark a significant improvement. Also, he said statewide guidelines would eliminate existing ambiguity and help get warnings to people in a timely way.

“Those are positive developments,” Helgren said. “If that’s the system Sen. McGuire is proposing, I think we have a real positive tool we can add to our many tools for alert and warning.”

Still, many survivors of the October disaster have complained that they had little or no warning of the flames as they swept into Sonoma County. Southern California officials, in contrast, sent wireless alerts to millions of people Monday and Wednesday with fire-related warnings.

Helgren said every fire is different, covering dissimilar topography and disparate populations.

“It certainly may have been appropriate,” Helgren said, of the choice in Los Angeles and Ventura counties to use wireless alerts.

The bill from McGuire and others is expected to require all counties to adopt the cellphone warning system and set protocols for when it would be used. It would also mandate operator training and cover multiple communication mediums including landlines, social media, cable TV and radio.

The cost for implementing the statewide program was not immediately known.

McGuire said the frequency of wildfires in recent years has strained mutual aid between state and local jurisdictions. He called for more money on top of millions of dollars devoted this year to ensure fire agencies are able to help each other in emergencies.

Co-authors include state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa; and assemblymembers Mark Levine, D-San Rafael, Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg and Cecilia Aguilar-Curry, D-Winters.

“You look at the size and scope of wildland fires in this state over the last decade and they have only become more severe,” McGuire said. “We have not kept up with the demand for mutual aid. We have to beef up funding.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-521-5250 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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