Targeted wildfire alerts ‘very well could have’ saved lives, California lawmaker says

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A state and federal program is offering free debris removal to residents whose homes were destroyed in the wine country fires.

When a fast-moving wildfire flared up in Lake County early on Oct. 9, emergency officials quickly issued an emergency alert, blasting thousands of cell phones with mandatory evacuation orders and notifying area residents that they could soon be trapped by flames.

Just south, in neighboring Sonoma County, a series of wildfires that ignited previous day were burning whole neighborhoods. Local emergency officials had decided against sending out mass alerts, citing concern over creating confusion and chaos on critical roadways. Officials also questioned what good it would do, with widespread damage to cellular and power infrastructure.

The Lake County wildfire, though less destructive than other nearby blazes, killed no one, state fire officials believe. The Sonoma County fires killed 24 people, with an additional 20 deaths in Napa, Mendocino and Yuba counties.

Could the response employed by Lake County emergency officials have saved lives if similar tactics were used nearby?

“It very well could have,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, whose North Coast district includes large portions of Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties.

McGuire and a dozen other California lawmakers on Monday said the state must take action to improve early warning systems during wildfires, earthquakes, floods and other emergencies.

“I think it’s time for this state to seriously explore a statewide standard for emergency alerts,” McGuire said during the state Legislature’s first oversight hearing of California’s alert systems since the October fires – ranked as the most destructive in the state’s history. He said Lake County likely benefited from past experience with deadly wildfires in recent years, including the 2015 Valley Fire that killed four people.

In an earlier interview, McGuire said he and other lawmakers plan to introduce legislation next year pressing for a statewide notification system capable of sending emergency alerts to cell phones and landlines. He is also calling for development of California-wide standards to be employed by all cities and counties that outline uniform emergency response protocols during an emergency and additional state resources for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire, to hire firefighters and bolster programs.

“California’s mutual aid system is more than strained,” McGuire said in the interview, referring to California’s firefighting strategy that shuttles CalFire and local firefighters to areas most in need. “We need statewide emergency alert technology that every Californian knows and understands...and equipment for all 58 counties that works on both cell phones and landlines, in cities and rural areas. Standards need to be established for when to deploy alert systems.”

He offered as examples current emergency notification systems in place, such as 911 and the Amber Alert.

At present, timing and delivery of emergency notifications is decided by local government and emergency officials, in many cases in coordination with CalFire.

But that system failed during the early hours of the North Bay wildfires, as private citizens helped evacuate their neighbors, went door-to-door knocking on doors to alert people of rapidly approaching flames and in some cases, saved homes and lives. Firefighters were stretched thin as they battled more than 170 wildfires burning throughout Northern California, said CalFire Director Ken Pimlott.

He called the size, scope and rapid spread of the fires, with record-breaking winds, over the past five years “unprecedented.” In the coming years, and with climate change, Pimlott said he anticipates fires will only increase in “severity and intensity.”

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state’s Office of Emergency Services, which helps coordinate statewide fire response, echoed McGuire in saying California must develop a statewide emergency response system to better alert people during wildfires and other disasters.

Today’s “decentralized system” can “result in complexities in being able to effectively get the word out,” Ghilarducci said at Monday’s hearing. “While there is a broad set of ways to push information out to the public, there is no one way currently, with a set of standards or best practices, of being able to use that.”

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, called out flaws in the current alert system and suggested public utilities have greater responsibility to ensure cell phone and landline infrastructure can withstand fires and other disasters.

Public agencies and law enforcement officials regularly rely on private alert systems, such as Nixle and Nextdoor, to notify residents, emergency officials said Monday.

Several North Bay residents have brought lawsuits against Pacific Gas & Electric Co., blaming the utility for the firestorms, referred to by CalFire as the “October fire siege.”