Evacuation alerts face scrutiny as California wine country wildfires rage

(Above: A firefighter works in Northern California. Photo courtesy CAL FIRE). 

It was only a matter of time.

As follows almost every major natural disaster in recent years, emergency officials are under fire for what some say was lackluster performance when it came to warning people about the oncoming siege of fire marching toward their homes early Monday.

Why weren’t more cell phone alerts issued?

Why wasn’t there more advance notice?

What worked, and what didn’t?

With at least 31 lives lost as a result of the fast-moving fires across Northern California’s wine country, they’re fair questions — questions that will no doubt come to dominate the conversation in coming weeks and months.

But while there are always things to learn from, it is worth remembering this was not a disaster that had a days-long build-up, like a hurricane. For many near the point of origin, there wasn’t even an hours-long build up, like severe weather such as tornadoes. Rather, many families went to bed Sunday before any fires had ignited, only to be awoken in the middle of the night to commands from a loudspeaker outside, a neighbor pounding on the door, or — maybe — a telephone call.

As it relates to messaging, here’s a rundown of what we know:

  • Officials did not issue Amber-Alert-style cell phone messages in Napa and Sonoma counties. These alerts, administered through the Wireless Emergency Alert System, light up cell phones and trigger an un-mistakable screeching sound when a child is missing and in danger in the recipient’s area. Though they are almost guaranteed to wake people from a dead sleep, they are not necessarily intended for neighborhood-level evacuations.

According to the FCC, the alerts are broadcast from cell towers whose coverage area best matches the zone of an emergency to “phones that are using the cell towers in the alert zone.” Depending on the region and how connected residents are to cell phone networks, that could result in a widespread, wide-radius of messaging.

And that could have resulted in a widespread shadow evacuation in which everyone — not just those in immediate evacuation zones — hits the roads in the middle of the night in a panic, potentially leading to any number of other emergencies, officials maintain. 

“It would cause unnecessary evacuations and delays for emergency vehicles reaching people in areas in need,” said county spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque, according to The Mercury News. “In order not to slow down response to people actually in need of help, we chose not to send the notice.”

Though beneficial, residents have to register for the service, a quick process but a process nonetheless. And there remains the challenge of reaching people in the middle of the night, as was the case this week.

It seems pertinent here to mention media, both social and traditional. Though news reporters were quick to begin reporting on the fires, and many were on the fire line overnight, residents were likely slow to tune in, at least initially. And social media, the means through which many community-level communications are handled by way of Facebook or NextDoor, was a vacuum at first. If you posted something, it might not have been seen until the morning.

  • So that leaves word-of-mouth. There are scores of harrowing stories of neighbors warning neighbors, showing up on doorsteps, blaring horns and doing everything they could to simply get people to wake up and look outside. This was how many people learned of the urgency. This, many have said, was the best way to get the word out.

“The smoke and ash and embers were raining down, sparking spot fires,” Paul Lowenthal, assistant fire marshal in Santa Rosa, recalled in an interview Wednesday with The Washington Post. “It didn’t take but moments for people to look out their front doors and see what was happening.”

It’s less than ideal. But in some cases, it’s all there can be.

As an aside, my graduate research was about evacuation communications during the 2013 Colorado Flood, which devastated a swath of the state and carved communities into islands. The gist: social ties matter within a community during disaster events. And while technology can certainly help, it cannot be the only answer, nor can it be the answer without considering the role of local first responders. People go through a two-step process during evacuations: hearing an alert and seeking additional information. It is inherently a social experience. Accordingly, communication infrastructure is vital as people both receive initial information and seek additional details, through whatever means necessary discussed earlier in this piece.

All of that to say cell phone towers becoming compromised during a disaster — as was the case during this week’s wildfire outbreak — will no doubt be a topic officials hone in on, with good reason.

In March, I wrote a piece for Wildfire Today about issues continuing to play out surrounding evacuations in Gatlinburg, a starkly different situation, but relevant still. Essentially, city officials there, it was determined, downplayed the threat early in the incident. Then, when hurricane-force winds tore through the region and fanned the flames, a “communication failure” caused by disabled communication services prevented the immediate issuance of a timely alert. Alternative sources of emergency communication — local media, for example — had only a marginal effect.

It’s only been five days since fires in Northern California erupted. The questions, after-actions reviews and analyses will be long coming.

Communicating breaking news or public safety-related evacuation messages to off-line, at-risk populations during a dynamic disaster event is a seemingly impossible conundrum. It is one that researchers have spent decades studying in various forms, whether under the umbrella of the sociology of disaster or the various hazard communication models within emergency management.

Going forward, with a continuous onslaught of disasters now reality, it’s an area that should not be ignored.

California wildfires update: More wind, more evacuations, more destruction

(Originally published at 7:14 a.m. PDT October 12, 2017)

After a day of relative calm and progress, high winds — some gusting to 50 mph overnight — prompted red flag warnings in Northern California and will hinder firefighters trying to gain an edge in what will likely go down as the most deadly and destructive wildfire event in state history.

The latest figures on this week’s wildfire outbreak, per CAL FIRE as of late Wednesday:

  • 22 wildfires have burned more than 170,000 acres
  • 3,500 homes and structures have been destroyed
  • 21 people have died, and that figure is expected to rise
  • More than 8,000 firefighters are working fires across the state, primarily those in Northern California’s wine country. This includes crews on 550 engines, 73 helicopters and 30 air tankers.

This New York Times analysis, from the air and ground adds to grim picture emerging from wine country, where the number of structures destroyed stands to climb.

While progress has been made on containment for many of the smaller fires, several major fires continue to expand, forcing even more evacuations Wednesday night and into Thursday, including the 5,000 people who live in Calistoga.

“Forecasted conditions have worsened. In the interest of life safety, it has become necessary to expand and implement the CAL FIRE Mandatory evacuation for the entire city of Calistoga,” city officials said. 

Among the largest incidents, as of Wednesday night’s update:

  • Atlas Fire: 43,000 acres and 3 percent contained
  • Tubbs Fire: 27,000 acres and 10 percent contained (at least 11 people were killed in this incident, making it the single deadliest blaze in this outbreak, according to CAL FIRE.
  • Redwood/Potter Fires (Mendocino Lake Complex): 30,000 acres and 5 percent contained

Here’s a list of the 20 most damaging fires in California history. Atop the list is the Tunnel Fire a 1,600-acre blaze that rekindled in October 1991 and tore through Oakland Hills, killing 25 people and destroying 2,900 structures. We wrote about the two of the top five, the Cedar and Witch fires, in a post earlier this week. Four of the top five started in October, when fuel loads are driest and Santa Ana wind events are inevitable.

On Thursday night, perimeters expanded on some fires with the return of high winds. The National Weather Service re-issued red flag warnings through Thursday for much of Northern California.

The bulletin today:

“Although the wind will not be as strong as Sunday and
Sunday night, the dry northerly winds could rapidly spread
current and new wildfire activity…”
Easing winds and a shift in a direction should reduce some fire dangers by the afternoon.
But it stands to be a busy weekend.
“A stronger wind event will impact the area late Friday night into Sunday. The strongest winds winds look to occur late Friday night and Saturday. Winds for the valley will taper off Saturday night but increase once again for many mountain and foothill areas before tapering off on Sunday. Most critical areas of concern where the strongest winds are expected will be across exposed ridges and through wind-aligned drainages.”


California fire chief among those who lost home in wine country wildfires

(Originally published at 6:49 a.m. PDT October 11, 2017)

(Above: Mill Valley Fire Chief Tom Welch, a resident of Santa Rosa, has lost his family home due to the wildfires burning this week in Northern California). 

A fire chief in Northern California who has been coordinating his staff’s response to wildfires this week is among those whose family home has been destroyed.

Tom Welch is the fire chief of the 35-member Mill Valley Fire Department in Marin County. Though the city of 15,000 has generally been spared the destructive effects of the wine country wildfires, Welch and his family reside 40 miles to the north in Santa Rosa — among the hardest hit communities.

His home was among the estimated 2,000 structures that were completely destroyed by this week’s fires that erupted Sunday night, the city confirmed on its website.

The city in a statement said:

“His family is safe. At this point we are still learning how other City of Mill Valley employees are impacted as well. Our thoughts are with everyone who has been impacted by this disaster.”

An online fundraiser has been established to help Chief Welch and other families. By 6 a.m. PDT Wednesday, more than 450 donors had contributed $62,000 to the campaign.

Reports are beginning to circulate of other first responders whose homes were damaged or destroyed, though it remains unclear how many could have been affected.

At least 17 people have been killed and more than 2,000 homes destroyed in the series of more than a dozen fires that started late Sunday and early Monday across Northern California. Containment efforts are progressing for some fires, which have burned in excess of 100,000 acres, and conditions have calmed considerably from Monday morning’s ferocious winds.

That could change later this week as winds and red flag warnings return to the area.

“It’s devastating,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who toured the fire-scarred region by helicopter, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “I fully expect this will be the worst fire disaster in California history.”

Canyon 2 Fire burns 7,500 acres in Southern California

(Originally published at 7:36 a.m. PDT October 10, 2017)

Canyon Fire map
The red dots represent heat detected on the Canyon 2 Fire by a satellite at 2:54 a.m. October 10. The yellow dots were detected at 12:54 p.m. October 9. The Canyon Fire started September 25, and the spread was stopped a few days later. Click to enlarge.

With attention — and resources — focused on the explosive growth and sheer scale of wildfires burning through Northern California’s wine country this week, crews to the south on Monday were busy battling an erratic, destructive and wind-whipped fire of their own.

The Canyon 2 Fire started Monday morning in the Anaheim Hills area.

By Tuesday morning, Anaheim Fire & Rescue reported the blaze to be at 7,500 acres. About 1,100 firefighters were assigned to the incident, with 14 helicopters and six planes assisting from the air.

It was just 5 percent contained.

The evacuation zone was primarily for residences in the wildland-urban interface south of the 91 Freeway and east of the 241.

Mandatory evacuations remained in place Tuesday. Some 24 structures are believed to have been destroyed, but exact details remain somewhat unclear.

Shifting winds were top of mind for crews on Tuesday.

Of note, the coastal marine layer that typically brings with it low-lying clouds and higher humidities was apparent Tuesday morning. However, the boundary line was pronounced, and the area of the Canyon 2 Fire was still experiencing single-digit relative humidity levels, courtesy of the Santa Ana Winds.

The Canyon 2 Fire was among several wildfires that blew up Monday in California, fed by high winds, low humidity and an abundance of fuels. Resources across the state were taxed as some fires went from ignition to tens of thousands of acres in just a few hours.

By Tuesday, “we’re gonna be as stretched as we can be,” said Steven Beech, an incident commander with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, according to the LA Times. 

The area is only a few miles from Disneyland. Suffice to say photos from the so-called “Happiest Place on Earth” were a little more striking on Monday.

80,000 acres in 18 hours: Damage from historic California wine country wildfires comes into focus

(Originally published at 8:33 p.m. PDT October 9, 2017)

(Above: Map showing the location of the wildfires in Northern California. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 12:54 p.m. PDT October 9, 2017. The yellow dots were detected in the previous 24 hours. Map compiled by Wildfire Today)

Monday marked the latest chapter in a book of unforgettable Octobers for California residents and firefighters alike, right next to the especially devastating fall months in 2003 and 2007.

The region was different this time — wine country of Northern California as opposed to the chaparral-dotted hillsides straddling the U.S-Mexico border near San Diego that bore witness to the Cedar and Witch fires, among the state’s most costly and destructive wildfires.

Throughout Monday, the similarities were coming into focus nonetheless.

Fanned by winds gusting in excess of 50 mph, upward of a dozen wildfires erupted Sunday night in the hills north of San Francisco and west of Sacramento. Already under a red flag warning, thousands of residents who went to bed Sunday gearing up for another week instead woke in the middle of the night and raced through ember-filled streets in a desperate effort to escape.

By morning, the scale of the fires was yet to be seen.

Hour by hour, the scope of the disaster came into focus.

By evening, the numbers were striking. In less than 24 hours, 15 wind-whipped fires in nine counties ignited and blackened more than 73,000 acres in less than 24 hours, according to CAL FIRE.

Among the three largest fires, based on CAL FIRE’s afternoon update: 

  • Atlas Fire in Napa County: 25,000 acres
  • Tubbs Fire in Napa County: 25,000 acres
  • Redwood Complex (Redwood and Potter fires) in Mendocino County: 19,000 acres

Several other fires ranging in size from a few acres to thousands also burned out of control into Monday evening.

More than 2,000 homes were destroyed, according to the governor’s office, and at least 10 people were killed with many more reportedly having suffered injuries. Many more were reported missing, and the death toll will almost certainly rise as operations transition to search and recovery.

Many of the fires remained 0 percent contained, despite the efforts of hundreds of firefighters from crews across the state.

A 747 Supertanker was among those resources assisting teams on the ground. By 6 p.m. PDT on Monday the aircraft had conducted six sorties, dropping over 110,000 gallons of retardant mostly in the Napa area. Many other air tankers and helicopters were also very busy slowing down the fires, where possible, with water and retardant.

A clearer picture of the damage is expected in coming days. But those visuals thus far, of lush vinyards and go-to wineries leveled, mobile home parks and up-scale neighborhoods both decimated, and even more damage expected as a red flag warning lingers into Tuesday.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday declared a state of emergency for several affected counties and also requested a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration to support state and local responses on the heels of an emergency proclamation issued for Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties.

Mr. Brown’s major disaster declaration request in part:

“These fires have forced thousands of Northern California residents to immediately evacuate their homes and seek temporary shelter in order to save their lives. Many residents had little time to flee due to the fires’ rapid and erratic rate of spread through the rural terrain. Tragically, these fires have already taken lives and emergency responders anticipate the number of fatalities could grow.

The devastation and disruption caused by these fires is extraordinary. Thousands have been made homeless. Many school remain closed. Major roads were damaged or destroyed. The fire destroyed utility poles causing the loss of power to over 38,000 residents. These fires have destroyed and continue to threaten critical infrastructure, including 80 communication towers, impacting essential services for thousands of people…”


Fires in Southern California from years past were known for their fast, yet steady, rate of growth over the span of several days — perhaps the biggest distinction between this week’s fires to the north that exploded overnight.

Still, there’s the potential for even greater growth and destruction through the week. Winds are forecast to ease on Tuesday morning, but dry conditions will continue with highs in the mid-to-upper 70s and 80s by the weekend, according to the National Weather Service. 

Wildfires erupt overnight in California’s wine country

(Originally published at 7:57 a.m. PDT October 9, 2017)

(The Tubbs Fire burns in Northern California Monday, Oct. 9, 2017, as seen from this video posted on YouTube by Craig Philpott)

A series of fires fanned by high winds erupted Sunday night and Monday morning in California’s wine country, charring at least 20,000 acres and sending thousands of people fleeing homes, hotels and hospitals in the middle of the night.

The fires, many of which started late Sunday, burned out of control across hillsides in Sonoma and Napa counties, north of San Francisco and west of Sacramento. Multiple other counties were affected as smoke pushed into neighborhoods as day broke.

The largest, the Tubbs Fire, scorched in excess of 20,000 acres within just a few hours, Santa Rosa Fire reported. The fast-moving fire forced the evacuation of area hospitals, closed schools and led officials to recall all city employees to help staff the emergency operations center.

The Santa Rosa city manager and acting director of emergency services declared the situation a local emergency, according to the incident’s information page. 

“This is a life-threatening event,” the Santa Rosa Police Department said in a 2 a.m. alert regarding the evacuations. “Leave immediately.”

There was no immediate word on injuries to civilians or first responders.

The National Weather Services has issued a Red flag warning for the region until 5 a.m. Tuesday. North winds were forecast to gust to 30 mph through the day Monday before shifting to the south and diminishing by afternoon.

“Warm temperatures, low humidity and locally strong winds will coincide with critically dry fuels,” forecasters warned.

Red flag warnings were in effect across Northern California on Monday.
Red flag warnings were in effect across Northern California on Monday.

The nearby Marin County Sheriff’s Office reported no fires Monday morning but said its 911 dispatchers were overwhelmed with people calling to report smoke from other area fires being pushed into their neighborhoods.

Video from residents in the area shows the frantic evacuation efforts that unfolded Monday morning.

The exact magnitude of this event remains unclear as day breaks in the area. Photos circulating online, including several hosted here by The San Francisco Chronicle, show several structures, including homes, totally destroyed in the densely populated area.