Emergency wireless alerts sent to larger areas than intended, county officials say

Sonoma County officials are trying to rectify mistakes made with its various emergency alert systems that at times this week have either gone to the wrong area or even included evacuation orders from previous wildfires.

An emergency alert sent to local cellphones Friday morning was erroneously linked to evacuation orders from the 2019 Kincade fire, ordering residents of Larkfield-Wikiup, who are clear of the Walbridge and Meyers fires burning in the west county, to evacuate. The alert was later amended and public agencies clarified those areas were not being evacuated.

On Tuesday, the initial alert warning west county residents about the growing fires was broadcast well beyond the location officials had targeted, said county Emergency Management Director Chris Godley.

During a special meeting of the Board of Supervisors Friday, Godley said it was the federal wireless emergency alert service, through which warnings can be sent to every phone in a desired location, that is “no longer functioning.” That system has been sending alerts to much wider areas than they wanted.

“It’s sending too broad a brushstroke to too many users,” Godley said, assuring elected officials the old Kincade fire information had been removed and future emergency alerts would be more accurate.

The county vowed to prioritize its use of wireless emergency alerts after reckoning with critical failures to notify the public during the 2017 firestorm, when whole neighborhoods awoke without warning or were evacuated after officials and residents pounded on doors.

Officials then said they opted not to use the wireless alerts because they did not think they could be focused on neighborhoods that needed warning and feared causing a mass panic. State authorities later faulted the county’s emergency staff for failing to prepare for wildfires and having an outdated understanding of warning technology.

In all, 24 people died in Sonoma County in the 2017 wildfires.

Other channels such as Nixle and SoCo Alert, which require residents to opt in, have been working as intended this week, Godley said.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she had heard frustrations from constituents who were confused at times and had trouble with the designated evacuation zones fire officials and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office have been using this week.

The map was a more effective tool for public safety agencies, Godley said, but it’s only a draft version and he anticipated the zones would be redrawn later to better reflect traffic realities and local knowledge.

The supervisors on Friday adopted an emergency proclamation initially made earlier this week by staff members, completing a procedural step that makes mutual aid and emergency state funding more readily available.

An emergency was initially declared Tuesday, but approving it allows the county to continue marshaling resources and to qualify for emergency expense protections, which would help county coffers already strained by the local COVID-19 response.

The county proclamation came as 26 congressional representatives in California signed onto a bipartisan letter asking the president for a major disaster declaration to provide greater federal support with the state’s resources stretched thin.

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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