Sonoma County officials criticized for inadequate warning about approaching wildfires

A system that can send emergency notifications to every cell phone in a designated area was not used.

Soon after the Pocket, Tubbs, and Nuns Fires burned thousands of homes in northern California in the days following the October 8 wind event, local residents began asking why they received no emergency notifications on their cell phones.

The day before, all cell phones in Rincon Valley east of Santa Rosa loudly blared with a message about a child abduction in San Francisco about 48 air miles to the south, but the Amber Alert system was not used as the wildfires bore down on the densely packed communities in Sonoma County.

Photo by Jeff Zimmerman
Tubbs Fire. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Officials did use two other systems, Nixle and SoCo Alert, to send messages to less than 35,000 cell phone users. Those programs require people to opt-in or sign up in advance.

But most residents in Sonoma County did not receive any notifications by phone as the fires approached between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. They found out as neighbors knocked on their doors or police drove around blasting sirens.

At least 23 people in Sonoma County died in the fires.

Below are excerpts from an article in the Press Democrat:

“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.

The [Amber Alert] program is available to the Sonoma County Emergency Services division, housed within the county fire department. Emergency officials have said publicly they opted against using the program because they didn’t want alerts to go out countywide and cause mass evacuations that could have prevented first responders from reaching affected areas.

“In this rushed environment to inform as many people as possible, we were worried that notification would go out too broadly, and potentially clog roads,” Sonoma County spokeswoman Hannah Euser said.

But state emergency officials have said the system can send messages to smaller geographic areas.

Inadequate notification of residents also occurred in November of last year as the Chimney Tops 2 Fire burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Fourteen people died as a result of the wildfires and nearly 2,500 structures were damaged or destroyed by flames that charred more than 17,000 acres in and around Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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4 thoughts on “Sonoma County officials criticized for inadequate warning about approaching wildfires”

  1. Sounds as bad as Gatlinburg. To their credit, they are now installing warning claxons all over the city and even the mountain where my cabin burned to the ground, and more importantly at least 14 died but probably more, thanks to the ineptness of the NPS, Gatlinburg Fire Chief and county officials.

  2. Some events happen so quickly, with so little warning that getting out proper notices to those affected can never happen in time. There are also those who will choose to ignore the warning and leave too late to avoid the disaster. Situational awareness applies to all citizens living in risk prone areas.

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