Fire survivors say Sonoma County’s alert system failed 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.