Staggered evacuation plan questioned in Camp fire's aftermath
MAGALIA — Ten years ago, as two wildfires advanced on Paradise, residents jumped into their vehicles to flee and got stuck in gridlock. That led authorities to devise a staggered evacuation plan — one that they used when fire came again last week.
But this time, Paradise's carefully laid plans quickly devolved into a panicked exodus. Some survivors said that by the time they got warnings, the flames were already extremely close, and they barely escaped with their lives. Others said they received no warnings at all.
Now, with at least 56 people dead and perhaps 300 unaccounted for in the nation's deadliest wildfire in a century, authorities are facing questions of whether they took the right approach.
It's also a lesson for other communities across the West that could be threatened as climate change contributes to longer, more destructive fire seasons.
Reeny Victoria Breevaart, who lives in Magalia, a forested community of 11,000 people north of the devastated town of Paradise that was also ravaged in the Nov. 8 inferno, said she couldn't receive warnings because cellphones weren't working. She also lost electrical power.
Just over an hour after the first evacuation order was issued at 8 a.m., she said, neighbors came to her door to say: "You have to get out of here."
Shari Bernacett, who with her husband managed a mobile home park in Paradise where they also lived, received a text ordering an evacuation. "Within minutes the flames were on top of us," she said.
Bernacett quickly packed two duffel bags while her husband and another neighbor knocked on doors, yelling for people to get out. The couple grabbed their dog and jumped in their pickup truck and made a harrowing escape, driving through 12-foot (4-meter) flames.
In the aftermath of the disaster, survivors said that authorities need to devise a plan to reach residents who can't get a cellphone signal in the hilly terrain or don't have cellphones at all.
In his defense, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said evacuation orders were issued through 5,227 emails, 25,643 phone calls and 5,445 texts, in addition to social media and the use of loudspeakers. As cellphone service went down, authorities went into neighborhoods with bullhorns to tell people to leave, and that saved some lives.
Honea said he was too busy with the emergency and the recovery of human remains to analyze how the evacuation went. But he said it was a big, chaotic, fast-moving situation, and there weren't enough law enforcement officers to go out and warn everyone.
"The fact that we have thousands and thousands of people in shelters would clearly indicate that we were able to notify a significant number of people," the sheriff said.
He added: "We are dealing with a worst-case-scenario disaster, and when you're faced with a worst-case-scenario disaster, there is no way to ensure that everybody's going to come out OK."
On Thursday, firefighters reported progress in battling the nearly 220-square-mile (570-square-kilometer) blaze. It was 40 percent contained, fire officials said, and crews managed to slow the flames' advance on populated areas.
The search for the dead in and around Paradise went on, with more than 450 rescue workers assigned to look for remains. President Donald Trump plans to travel to California on Saturday to visit victims of the wildfires burning at both ends of the state.
The Paradise fire once again underscored shortcomings in warning systems.