Fire survivors say Sonoma County’s alert system failed them

Many residents who escaped want to know why official evacuation alerts - in the form of phone calls, text messages or loudspeaker announcements - never came for them.|

The day before a deadly firestorm raced from Calistoga to northern Santa Rosa, burning entire neighborhoods to the ground, Martin Whiteside's cellphone emitted an obnoxious tone and displayed a message: Suspected child abduction in San Francisco. Be on the lookout for a silver Ford.

A longtime resident of Greenbriar Way in Rincon Valley, Whiteside considered himself prepared for an emergency. He had no landline telephone, but he had downloaded emergency notification applications on his cellphone and kept a public alert radio on hand. He'd stashed flashlights, extra food, toilet paper and water in case of an earthquake, and kept a list of things to grab during an evacuation. But none of those preparations helped early that Monday, Oct. 9, as Whiteside slept. A firestorm burned for more than three hours before it encroached into his neighborhood north of Montecito Boulevard. About 1 a.m., a neighbor pounded on his front door, Whiteside said, and when he stepped outside there were “flames all over the place.” His phone had remained silent.

“The one time I needed this - really needed this - the damn thing wasn't used,” Whiteside said.

In those initial hours between 9:45 p.m. Oct. 8 and daybreak the next morning, thousands of people endured terrifying and death-defying escapes amid fires that eventually burned 142 square miles of Sonoma County, leveling neighborhoods between Calistoga and northern Santa Rosa, and in Kenwood, Glen Ellen and east Sonoma. At least 23 people in Sonoma County died in the fires, which destroyed more than 5,100 homes.

In the aftermath of the fires, with the destruction plain to see, many residents who escaped want to know why official evacuation alerts - in the form of phone calls, text messages or loudspeaker announcements - never came for them.

If the well-known Amber Alert messages for suspected child abduction cases can ping phones across a region - a technology used in adjacent Lake County that night to warn its residents about the fires - why didn't Sonoma County officials use it to warn people about a growing firestorm mere miles away?

“I'm emotional when it comes to this, and I'm a rational guy,” said Patrick McCallum, who fled the fires with his wife, Judy Sakaki, president of Sonoma State University.

They burned their bare feet and ran for their lives as flames tore through their Fountaingrove neighborhood. By that point, about 4 a.m., the Tubbs fire, which started outside Calistoga 9 miles to the east, had been burning more than six hours. McCallum, however, was only awakened by a smoke alarm and the couple's home already was on fire. The landline phone in the bedroom never rang.

“Someone has to do a deep dive of facts,” said McCallum, an education lobbyist. “There were mistakes made.”

Four alert systems

Sonoma County officials did issue evacuation notifications throughout the night - initially with firefighters and deputies on the ground banging on doors, blaring sirens, urging people to evacuate over the loudspeakers in the rural communities along Petrified Forest Road where the Tubbs fire made its first advance from Calistoga toward Santa Rosa.

At 10:51 p.m. Oct. 8, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office sent its first warning through the web-based Nixle software capable of reaching 21,284 cellphones and 16,330 emails of people who had signed up.

Over the next seven hours, sheriff's officials sent eight Nixle messages - each with increasing urgency - warning the public about fires advancing down Mark West Springs Road toward Santa Rosa, into Kenwood and Glen Ellen, and telling the public about evacuation centers. Santa Rosa police sent three messages through Nixle before 6 a.m., starting with a 1:41 a.m. mandatory evacuation notice for Skyfarm, Fountaingrove and Montecito Heights neighborhoods.

At 11:35 p.m., Sheriff Rob Giordano ordered evacuations from the Larkfield area to the Napa County border using a pre-recorded phone call sent to 2,096 phones. The CodeRED phone system, known locally as SoCo Alerts, is capable of sending automated calls to approximately 175,000 landlines in the county, and it can be geographically focused.

But programs like Nixle and SoCo Alert require people to enroll in advance to get a text, email or cellphone call. In a county with a half-million people, relatively few had signed up. Between the two systems, it amounted to less than 35,000 cellphone users, including some who had signed up for both systems.

In the wake of the fires, however, Sonoma County emergency department officials have faced criticism for not using a fourth system that would have sent Amber Alert-style messages to any cellphone within a certain distance of a cell tower - reaching locals and tourists alike and overriding silent settings. Called a Wireless Emergency Alert, the system is managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and has certain limitations, such as a message limit of 90 characters.

The program is available to the Sonoma County Emergency Services division, housed within the county fire department. Emergency officials have said publicly they opted against using the program because they didn't want alerts to go out countywide and cause mass evacuations that could have prevented first responders from reaching affected areas.

“In this rushed environment to inform as many people as possible, we were worried that notification would go out too broadly, and potentially clog roads,” Sonoma County spokeswoman Hannah Euser said.

But state emergency officials have said the system can send messages to smaller geographic areas. That was done in Lake County before dawn on Oct. 9. Lake County sheriff's Lt. Corey Paulich said he drew a polygon on a map around the Lakeshore Drive area of Clearlake where he wanted to force notifications onto any cellphones so people would know a wildfire was coming their way. The message went out at 2:15 a.m.

“Our agency and our citizens in our county, we are very sensitive to dealing with wildfires,” said Paulich.

Authorities have said the fires that burned through communities in Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties knocked out power and disabled cellphone towers.

Budge Currier, manager of 911 systems for the California Office of Emergency Services, said as many as 120 cell towers across Northern California were damaged or otherwise impacted by the fires that began Oct. 8, although he didn't have a specific number for Sonoma County.

It's unclear when those cell tower disruptions began.

But some cellphones were working even hours after the fires ignited. In the aftermath, people have shared stories of friends and family calling - providing essential warnings of the coming danger.

The friend that called Will Barnes' cellphone at 1 a.m., awakening him, likely saved his family, he said, although they barely escaped as flames engulfed their wooded neighborhood on Michele Way off Mark West Springs Road.

“It's the only warning we got,” Barnes said.

Unanswered questions

Sonoma County's emergency management division - charged with planning for disasters and coordinating response - would not provide a list of phone or email alerts sent by its department to residents. Officials with the department, including emergency coordinator Zach Hamill and emergency manager Chris Helgren, didn't respond to repeated requests by phone, email and through a spokeswoman for information and interviews over the course of a week.

For an Oct. 13 Press Democrat report, Hamill defended the decision to not send information to cellphones using the Wireless Emergency Alert system, saying he didn't want to clog the roads if too many people responded to the messages and evacuated.

Helgren said in an interview broadcast on a local NBC news station that Sonoma County has access to the Wireless Emergency Alert program but has never used it.

Public concerns about a lack of warnings have come up repeatedly at meetings with county officials, where residents are asking why they didn't receive calls or other warnings about the fires.

Giordano, the sheriff, said he's “had a lot of people ask about that” and urges people to plan ahead by signing up for the warning programs. In the aftermath of the firestorm, many have.

Nixle had an audience with 21,284 mobile phones and 16,330 emails at the time the fires started. By Oct. 25, more than two weeks after the fires erupted, its Sonoma County audience had grown to 221,637 cellphones and 37,551 emails. The program is also used to share mundane government information, like arrest reports and civic events, and each user can alter the settings to determine how the message displays.

Giordano said his department will learn from the disaster - but residents also need to take charge of their safety and plan ahead by signing up with county alert programs.

“We're living in a world of incredible connectivity but people have to take that responsibility for that connectivity,” Giordano said.

This week, Sheriff's Office personnel met with representatives from Everbridge, the Burlington, Massachusetts-based company that created the Nixle software, to learn about a new program the company is developing that could send notifications to all cellphones within a certain distance of a cell tower - much like the federal wireless alert system.

“We literally called them and said, ‘How can we reach more people,'” Giordano said.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said he's aware Lake County employed the Amber Alert-style notification program during the first hours of last month's firestorm whereas Sonoma County did not.

“There needs to be a top-to-bottom analysis here locally,” McGuire said. “We have already started the process at the statewide level to determine what technology currently exists and where the technology lacks, how we can improve the statewide protocols.”

McGuire said part of the challenge will be to improve the Wireless Emergency Alert program. That requires wireless companies such as Verizon and AT&T work with government entities to improve it. McGuire said those meetings began last week.

“The severity of natural disasters are increasing both in size and scope and California needs to establish uniform standards and protocols that can be deployed during our communities' greatest time and need,” McGuire said.

‘Hurricane of fire'

Sonoma County residents have been listening closely to officials' explanations of how they tried to warn people, and what they didn't do. Many people interviewed have said even a few additional minutes could have spared them - and their children - harrowing experiences.

“He didn't want to cause havoc, he didn't want to send out mass messages. So instead you ruined people's lives?” said Pam Rumberg, 45, of Santa Rosa, responding to what she's read about a Sonoma County emergency official's decision to avoid using the alert program. “My 6-year-old, myself, my partner, we will never be the same.”

The night of Oct. 8, after Rumberg was asleep, her partner, Will Barnes, stayed up to watch the new Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War and keep an eye on his phone because the air was smoky in their wooded Michele Way neighborhood. They have often experienced the smoky effects of fires in Lake County, and that's what he assumed this was. He dozed off and was jolted awake about 1 a.m. when a friend repeatedly dialed his number after seeing on Facebook the fire was on their street.

“I put my head out the back door and I could see it up on the corner,” Barnes said. “By then everything was on fire - the neighbor's house, trees, the wind was blowing sideways across the road.”

Barnes gathered up his sleeping 6-year-old son, Coda, and the family ran outside into “a hurricane of fire,” Rumberg said. She and Coda got into one car, and Barnes got into his pickup. But they barely got down their driveway before realizing neighbors were in bumper-to-bumper traffic trying to get onto Mark West Springs Road and out of the inferno. Rumberg got out into a storm of embers, grabbed their son and got into Barnes' pickup. She was surprised her hair didn't catch fire.

Driving through thick smoke and alongside walls of flame, they made it down Mark West Springs Road to a Larkfield shopping center. With them they had little else but phones and a baby book. In the panic of switching vehicles, Coda had dropped the stuffed monkey he'd had since birth.

“He said to me the next day, ‘How am I going to be able to sleep? My monkey always made me feel safe,'” Rumberg said.

‘I wanted to tell everyone'

Firefighters were on alert across the region Oct. 8, knowing any fire that ignited amid strong winds and drought-parched brush could turn into a disaster. The fire that started just north of Calistoga and ran uphill on a westward path looked bad from the start - and early reports sent firefighters from all parts of the county into trucks and engines, heading into the fray.

Sonoma County sheriff's deputies joined firefighters in the frantic effort to get people out of homes in the wooded communities along Petrified Forest Road near Napa County.

Over the course of that blaze and others that began that night, the number of firefighters, deputies, police officers and government officials responding grew to a force of more than 6,000. But in the Tubbs fire's first hours, it was a handful of first responders who took charge.

Sonoma County sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Crum, a spokesman for the department, had been working an overtime shift when he smelled smoke sometime after 10 p.m. inside the Sheriff's Office building near Mendocino Avenue and Bicentennial Way in Santa Rosa.

Hearing increasingly distressing reports from deputies in the field, Crum sent out a first warning about the fires via Nixle at 10:51 p.m. The message went to 21,284 cellphones and 16,330 emails:

“We currently have fires at Mark West Springs and Riebli Rd. in Santa Rosa, Shiloh (Road) and Conde (Lane) in Windsor and Hwy 116 at Fredericks Rd in Sebastopol.”

He warned that strong winds were making the fires difficult. At that point, fires seemed to be erupting throughout the county.

“I wanted to tell everyone be on the lookout,” Crum said. “I even texted my wife to watch around the house.”

He sent another message at 11:03 p.m. to fewer people, ordering mandatory evacuations due to fire at Porter Creek and Petrified Forest roads, northeast of Santa Rosa, and telling people to call 911 only for immediate emergencies because the lines were inundated. That message went to 2,320 emails and 4,496 cellphones of people in the area signed up through Nixle.

At that point, Crum got into his patrol car and drove toward the fire, which he'd heard was approaching Mark West Springs Road. From his patrol car, at 11:14 p.m., he pulled over and ordered additional evacuations near Calistoga and Kenwood through the Nixle system.

He joined those who were on foot making alerts, pounding on doors, directing traffic, getting fleeing people into patrol cars, fire trucks and ambulances. People were panicking and some refused to go, forcing deputies to argue or leave them behind.

“By that point I was seeing it, feeling it, smelling it,” Crum said. “I thought, ‘Do I stop for two minutes and put out a Nixle?' But as the fire kept growing, I felt it was important to notify as many people as I could. That was the only way I knew how to do it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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