Sonoma County’s emergency alerts face scrutiny in wake of deadly wildfires

As the Tubbs fire raced Sunday night through the mountains northeast of Santa Rosa toward populated areas, Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services officials weighed the option of sending an evacuation message to every cellphone in the county.

If they did, that Wireless Emergency Alert notice would have been sent countywide to any cellphone network, reaching a massive number of the county’s 503,000 residents.

Officials instead sent targeted landline calls to homes in evacuation zones, and online messages, texts and cellphone calls to a relatively small number of residents already signed up for notification alerts.

Now, county officials are defending their decision even as some residents say they never received warning of the fast-moving blaze, which has destroyed more than 2,800 homes and killed at least 17 people in Sonoma County.

“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,” causing chaos and panic and impeding first-responders’ access to the fire, said Emergency Services Coordinator Zachary Hamill.

“People from Cloverdale to Petaluma would have started leaving.”

The Wireless Emergency Alert uses the same system as Amber Alerts and flash-flood warnings sent by the National Weather Service, Hamill said.

Messages aren’t received as texts or calls but as an alert that pops onto the screen of smartphones, complete with the distinctive repeating emergency ring. The system is managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency with its use tightly regulated, Hamill said.

Cellphone alerts can’t be targeted to areas smaller than a county and are often used when hurricanes and tornadoes threaten multiple counties, he said. Emergency alerts on the federal system are also limited to around 90 characters in length, Hamill said.

“I stand by my decision I made,” Hamill said. “I don’t think an (emergency alert) for the entire county would have been helpful.”

If people from around the county had evacuated, roadways would have been clogged making it difficult to get needed equipment in and threatened residents out, Hamill said.

State fire officials Wednesday said that while the current priority is getting people out of active fires, they would be following up on the methods used and whether it was even possible to reach everyone with so little time to react.

“People were in bed, asleep at midnight, and these fires came down on these communities with no warning within minutes,” said state fire agency Chief Ken Pimlott.

“There was little time to notify anybody by any means.”

In emergencies where a few minutes or even seconds can save lives, the notification systems have inherent blind spots. Not everyone will get the message. Sonoma County uses a service that sends out text messages or emails when an evacuation is ordered, but residents have to sign up to receive them. The county also uses a mobile phone app called Nixle that can receive messages, but also requires a resident to opt-in to participate.

The county can also trigger automated emergency calls to landlines in an area threatened by fire, but that would only reach homes with those phones.

And the county also posts evacuation notices on a website, Facebook and Twitter.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said the county’s emergency alert service texted thousands of warnings to residents to flee Sunday night. However, nearly 80 cellphone towers were knocked out or badly damaged, officials said.

Some evacuees escaped only when they realized the fire was nearly at their doors.

David Leal was at his home in Santa Rosa about 11:30 p.m. Sunday when strong winds began stirring and he smelled smoke. Growing increasingly anxious, he said he called a fire dispatcher but was assured there was no need to worry unless he saw flames. He looked outside and didn’t see any, so he and his wife went to bed.

At 2 a.m., they were jarred awake when a sudden blast of wind knocked a lamp off a nightstand. Leal looked out at neighbors who were packing up their car to get out. There was never a phone call, he said, or a knock on the door.

“We didn’t know what was going on, but just instinct led us to agree on the decision to evacuate,” he said.

Sonoma County sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum was on duty Sunday night when he smelled smoke in the parking lot of the department’s headquarters in Santa Rosa. Ducking inside, dispatch calls started coming in about fire in the nearby hills.

He and about a dozen other deputies raced to two rural neighborhoods with sirens blaring and warning residents on their loudspeakers of the fast-approaching blaze. Deputies went door to door urging residents to flee.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or On Twitter @nrahaim.

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