For many people, the smell of smoke was the only warning as a cataclysmic fire swept down Porter Creek canyon, across Larkfield and Fountaingrove and into Coffey Park.
With no time to gather photos, heirlooms or important papers, scores of residents escaped only with the clothes on their backs and their lives. At least 15 people in Sonoma County perished.
Many survivors are asking why there wasn’t more notice.
They should have answers.
With wildfires still burning out of control across large parts of Sonoma County, emergency agencies and elected officials understandably remain focused on saving lives, preserving homes and businesses and assisting thousands of displaced residents.
But the time to examine decisions made late Sunday and early Monday as winds drove flames into populated areas will come soon. That process must include scrutiny of the warning system and, most likely, adoption of better protocols for alerting people when their lives are in jeopardy.
Sonoma County is registered to use an Amber-alert style system that triggers loud alarms and delivers text messages to cellphones in a specific geographic area. Local officials chose not to send an alert, saying it would reach too many people and that it could sow panic and hinder firefighters trying to get into affected areas.
“If I had notified half a million people, many wouldn’t have read the whole message and would have thought it was an order for them to evacuate,” Sonoma County Emergency Services Coordinator Zachary Hamill told The Press Democrat’s Nick Rahaim. “People from Cloverdale to Petaluma would have started leaving,” causing chaos and panic and impeding first-responders’ access to the fire, he said.
Automated phone calls urging people to evacuate were made by Sonoma County’s reverse 911 telephone warning system.
At this point, we haven’t learned how many calls were made, what areas received them or how much notice was given. Several people interviewed in the aftermath said they were preparing to leave before their phones rang. Others said they never received a call, perhaps because they already had left.
Police and firefighters used loudspeakers and, like many fleeing residents, they pounded on doors, rousing people from their sleep and urging them to evacuate.
They probably saved many lives, but didn’t public agencies invest in wireless alerts and other warning systems to free first-responders to focus on the underlying crisis?
There are other issues to consider. With so many people having abandoned their landlines, are robo-calls an outdated means of notification? If cellular phone users have kept numbers from other areas codes, will they miss out on the Wireless Emergency Alerts? And, as we’ve seen this week, cell service can break down quickly during an emergency.
As the emergency unfolded, and in the days since, the city and county have disseminated regular updates, advisories and even evacuation notices on the web, via Facebook, Nixle and other social media and through the county’s SoCo Alert system. To get those alerts, however, you need to register.
More than 300,000 North Coast residents have signed up for Nixle or SoCo Alert. If you aren’t one of them, sign up now. Fires are still burning, and winds could pick up again this weekend, sending flames and embers in unexpected directions. For Nixle, text your Zip code to 888777. For SoCo Alert, register at SonomaCounty.ca.gov/FES or download the app for your smartphone. And, please, heed any warnings.