PD Editorial: Familiar fire scenes point out need for better alert systems

A mansion that survived a wildfire sits on a hilltop as the Getty Center, top right, is visible in distance in the Bel Air district of Los Angeles Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. A dangerous new wildfire erupted in the tony Bel Air area of Los Angeles early Wednesday as firefighters battled three other destructive blazes across Southern California. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)


Wind-driven flames racing through canyons and down tree-lined ridges. Residents fleeing homes in the dark of smoke-filled nights. Firefighters racing toward mountains crowned with orange glow. The scenes this week in Ventura County and other communities around Los Angeles are all too familiar.

The hearts of the North Bay go out to those in Southern California for all they are experiencing — and all they will experience in the days to come.

The most chilling aspects of this devastation is that, like the fires that swept through Sonoma and Napa counties in October, these are largely suburban wildfires, something climate experts say are likely to be more common. As Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, told the Associated Press, California’s fire season is becoming a year-round event. The number of acres burned so far this year is already more than double the 244,297 acres that burned in 2016.”These fires are not just fast and furious, but they’re really expensive to fight,” Miller said.

They are also becoming a round-the-clock risk. This points out once again the need for California as a whole — and Sonoma County in particular — to develop a more effective system for alerting residents, especially when fire is approaching in the dead of night.

Thankfully, residents in Ventura were warned about the fast-approaching flames through an emergency notification system that helped evacuate at-risk neighborhoods. According to Ventura County officials, a blast of Amber alert-type messages went out to all residents with AT&T or Verizon landlines and to all cellphones in the evacuation areas.

This is in sharp contrast to what occurred in Sonoma County where alerts only went out to some landline phones that still had power and to the cellphones of those relatively few residents who had signed up in advance to receive Nixle or SoCo Alerts.

Local emergency officials had opted against using the more extensive alert system out of concern that such a broad message would have created widespread confusion and congestion as tens of thousands of residents fled their homes, potentially interfering with the ability of first responders to fight the fires.

But as a result, many residents only found out about the fires because of friends, family and neighbors who pounded on their doors in the dead of night or called them directly.

Sonoma County can do better. So can the state as a whole.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, was right when he noted on Monday during a legislative hearing on the North Coast fires that lives may have been saved had Sonoma County taken the same action as Ventura County. He’s also correct that the California needs a broader system for just such crisis situations.

“I think it’s time for this state to seriously explore a statewide standard for emergency alerts,” McGuire said during the oversight hearing of the state’s alert systems.

According to the Sacramento Bee, McGuire said he and other lawmakers plan to introduce legislation calling for a statewide notification system that would send emergency messages to all cellphones and landlines in at-risk areas.

Such a system makes sense. But given the uncertainties of how many residents may be without power or may have their phones turned off at night, no phone-based alert system is foolproof. For that reason, it also would be worthwhile for some communities to consider installing siren systems in some areas, including in Fountaingrove and Oakmont, as part of the emergency notification system.

Such sirens are already integrated with Wireless Emergency Alert systems in locations such as Crescent City to warn residents of approaching tsunamis. Earlier this week, Hawaii reactivated a siren system that was set up during the Cold War to warn people of an impending nuclear attack, an action taken out of concern for North Korea’s development of a powerful missile capable of reaching the United States. The system is also used to warn residents of tsunamis.

Sirens aren’t sexy. But in a time of emergency, they may be the wake-up call Californians need most.