Readers have become all too familiar with the details on the fires that decimated this region five weeks ago. We’ve reported at length on how firefighters and law enforcement crews responded, how hospitals were evacuated, how and when evacuation centers were set up and how neighbors alerted and helped one another to safety.
But there remains one aspect to those critical early hours that has yet to be fully reported or explained. That is a clear explanation of who received phone call warnings about the fast-approaching fires and who did not. As yet, the county Fire and Emergency Services Department has failed to provide any data on who was warned and at what time.
As Staff Writer Julie Johnson reported on Saturday (“County fails to respond on alerts”), officials also have refused to explain in more detail their decision to not use a government alert system that could have warned cellphone users as the fires were spreading. In recent weeks, Press Democrat reporters have sought interviews with county emergency manager Chris Helgren and emergency coordinator Zachary Hamill about the decisions that were made that evening. But so far they’ve been shut out. Phone calls and emails have not been returned.
Some residents in remote areas off Mark West Springs Road say they did receive a warning late on Oct. 8, and because of that they had ample time to leave their homes safely. But those calls came across on landlines when most homes still had power. As the fire spread toward Fountaingrove, large sections of the region lost power, leaving many homes without landline service.
Sonoma County is one of many areas that is authorized to use the Wireless Emergency Alert system, which causes cellphones to ring or vibrate with warnings and delivers text messages even when the sound on phones is turned down. But the county chose not to use it. Instead officials opted to use robocalls and programs such as Nixle and SoCo Alert, which send cellphone and email messages to people who had already signed up to receive them. Less than 3 percent of the county’s population was signed up for these alerts prior to the fire.
“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,” Hamill told The Press Democrat’s Nick Rahaim on Oct. 13. “People from Cloverdale to Petaluma would have started leaving,” impeding the ability of first responders to access to the fire, he said.
But some argue that a WEA alert, even a broad one, at worst would have resulted in fewer 911 calls, saving residents and dispatchers valuable time, and at best might have saved lives. Either way, critics note that local roads were soon gridlocked anyway as residents fled the fast-approaching flames.
Granted this system needs improving. Since the fires, the Federal Communications Commission has ordered the nation’s largest wireless carriers to make upgrades to ensure that these Amber Alert-style warnings can be sent to a more geographically targeted area. In addition, California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris have sent letters to the FCC saying that the Wireless Emergency Alert system is too cumbersome, which they say contributed to the decision not to use it in Sonoma County.