On Oct. 8, wildfires ripping through the North Bay challenged emergency response systems.

On Oct. 8, wildfires ripping through the North Bay challenged emergency response systems. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

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Around 10 p.m. on the night of Oct. 8, 2017, an unidentified woman frantically called 911.

“We are blocked, and we can’t get out of here,” she said.

It was her second call of the night, and her voice sounded shaky. She was trapped behind a tree in the Franz Valley area northwest of Calistoga as a neighboring house went up in flames.

The 911 operator said she would send help, but no evacuations had been ordered for that area yet. As Cal Fire crews saw the quickly moving flames burn through the hills around Calistoga, they realized people needed to evacuate.

By 10:30 p.m. state fire officials tried to get law enforcement to call and warn people on their home phones.

Those calls did not go out until 11:35 p.m.

By 11:59 p.m., Cal Fire expanded its request for evacuations to include the entire area from Calistoga west to the city of Santa Rosa.

But residents did not receive another alert, of any kind, until 1:05 a.m.

Hundreds of hours of 911 calls and dispatch recordings reviewed by KQED expose gaps in the emergency response system. These problems go beyond North Bay communities and touch on the limitations of current evacuation procedures, the challenge of communicating across jurisdictional boundaries and the difficulties in notifying hundreds of thousands of people when disaster strikes.

On the night of Oct. 8, those problems led to overwhelmed emergency operators giving 911 callers conflicting information about whether to evacuate. In some instances, operators told residents to stay put until law enforcement officers knocked on their doors. Others told callers to use their judgment and evacuate if they felt unsafe. In more than one case, dispatchers who were asked to send out evacuation calls didn’t know what they needed to do.

The Tubbs Fire would ultimately kill 22 people and destroy thousands of homes.


Aaron Abbott, who runs Sonoma County’s fire and medical dispatch center, Redcom, acknowledged that authorities were overwhelmed in the early hours of the fire as they fielded hundreds of calls. The Redcom center, where 911 operators are located, was itself impacted by the fires. The dispatch center lost power — causing the room to fill with smoke. Flames burned within a few hundred feet of the building, nearly forcing Abbott to evacuate his staff.

“This was not the wall of fire coming down the mountain like I think a lot of people have this concept in their head,” Abbott said. “What we experienced in the dispatch center were hundreds of disparate fire locations throughout the entire county … and when you have that many fire locations and that many responders being dispatched to disparate locations, it’s going to take some time to understand what the nature of this fire was.”

Firefighters and law enforcement officers also faced logistical challenges as they attempted to save lives and evacuate people: Power lines knocked down by high winds sprawled across roads, blocking access; landlines went dead as the fire chewed through telephone lines; and even mobile phones were rendered useless after the fires took out more than 70 cellphone towers.

Jonathan Cox, a Northern California battalion chief for Cal Fire, said the fire’s speed made it hard to get people out.

“The Tubbs Fire was moving at a football-field-a-minute from the Calistoga side of this area,” Cox said. “It was one of those instances where the disaster was moving faster than literally people could communicate.”

But evacuation procedures also contributed to some of the delays in getting people out of harm’s way. As blazes bore down on Sonoma County homes, Cal Fire wasn’t authorized to order evacuations. Neither were dispatchers. Only law enforcement could tell people they had to leave their homes.

That means in the first hours of the October fire, Cal Fire recommended evacuations to Redcom dispatchers, who then had to get approval from the Sheriff’s Department before they could order people to leave.

“You have a state agency in another county who asked to call us in this county because something going on in their county is now crossing jurisdictional lines and they need the authorities in this county to be able to send the alerts out locally here because they’re not going to have, in another county, the infrastructure or even the capability … or the authority to send an alert in this county,” Redcom’s Abbott said.

Also complicating matters are the different types of alerts that exist and how they are sent out:

  • Wireless Emergency Alert, or WEA: When phone companies override private cellphones in a specific geographic area on behalf of government agencies and send you an alert you cannot ignore — for instance, these are commonly used for Amber Alerts
  • Reverse 911: When 911 operators call you, often on a landline
  • SoCo Alert: An opt-in system that is similar to Reverse 911 that can send alerts to phone lines, emails and texts
  • Nixle: An opt-in system that many county agencies, including Sonoma and Napa, use to contact residents via text and email alerts

Even with these various technologies available, many residents in the path of the fire never received a single evacuation notification. Between the time the fires broke out and 2 a.m., Sonoma County officials sent out four alerts through SoCo. The city of Santa Rosa sent out three alerts, but not until 1:53 a.m., after the fire had jumped over Highway 101, a six-lane freeway, and was already in the city’s residential subdivisions.

Sonoma County officials also sent out four alerts about evacuations and the fires through the opt-in system Nixle between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. That included a Nixle alert sent at 11:03 p.m. warning people to evacuate around Porter Creek and Petrified Forest Road.

Chris Helgren, emergency manager for Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services, faced questions about his decision not to send wireless emergency alerts even as the Tubbs Fire still burned.

“I think that our decisions saved lives,” he said. “And I can’t imagine having a wider alert for people that were not in the immediate danger area. I can’t imagine what that would have added to the already overly congested situation, where literally the roads were locked and there was no movement.”

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano declined KQED’s request for an interview.

“It has been well documented that we had 29 deputies on duty when the fire broke out and over 170 deputies responded within the first 12 hours,” sheriff’s spokesman Spencer Crum wrote in an email. “We went door to door notifying residents of the fire, along with sending Nixles and a SoCo Alert reverse 911 call to residents to evacuate. At this time we are focused on rebuilding our community here in Sonoma County.”

County officials say they’re examining their communications system in the wake of what happened in October and weighing whether changes should be made. Abbott, who runs the dispatch center, said giving more people the authority to make evacuation calls could make alerts go out faster.

“But if you’re going to do that, you also have to indemnify those folks, too, from liability, right?” he said. “Because if you’re not a law enforcement entity and you’re telling people to leave their homes, and then somebody gets hurt in the process, you’re going to be on the hook.”

Cal Fire dispatcher Eric Pastrama came in on the night of Oct. 8. One of his first jobs that night was to call in more staff as the fires spread.
Cal Fire dispatcher Eric Pastrama came in on the night of Oct. 8. One of his first jobs that night was to call in more staff as the fires spread. (Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED)

New laws could also impact how the public is notified of emergencies. Earlier this month, state Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) introduced legislation that could create a statewide notification system through Wireless Emergency Alerts. The bill would require counties to send alerts to cellphones and landlines as well as broadcasting those messages through radio, television and on state-controlled highway billboards.

The Federal Communications Commission is also considering regulations that would strengthen the Wireless Emergency Alert system and make it more effective. For instance, it is looking at expanding the length of alerts from 90 to 360 characters and allowing the system to target smaller geographic areas. Sonoma County officials said these limitations were part of the reason why they did not want to use the system during the fires.

But Abbott said the disaster has already changed the way he does his job.

“I don’t care if you’re a dispatcher or you’re fire department or you’re a police officer, or whatever,” Abbott said. “If you were involved in this incident, you’re doing things differently today than you were on the 7th [of October].”

Sonja Hutson and Peter Arcuni contributed to this report.

North Bay Fires: What Took Authorities So Long to Warn People? 25 January,2018Marisa Lagos

  • Karen

    This was a failure by supervisors in the Sonoma County Office of Emergency Services to have a communication protocol in place. According to the published timeline map, Tubbs fire started in Calistoga at 9:43pm. Cal Fire knew it was out of control at 10:52pm (during the news hour) and called mandatory evacuation of Porter Creek/MW Springs. Power and cell coverage were still on in most of Santa Rosa, and many people were up watching the news. A significant population could have been forewarned, so that excuse is just bogus.

    Office of Emergency Services personnel were all at a Yosemite retreat. Although multiple wildfires started early on Sunday evening, Manager Helgren and Coordinator Hamill were finally awakened at 12:30am by REDCom. They subsequently made the intentional decision to not use FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, as they were the only ones authorized to use it. According to anonymous FEMA staff, since 2013, the largest cellphone companies had enabled geo-targeting to specific areas. In an interview with NBC Investigates, Helgren and Hamill stated they came back to work at 6:00am and did not fully realize the magnitude of the situation. Most of the area had burned by that time. Television crews were filming it in real time.

    The decision to rely solely on Deputies and Cal Fire to evacuate people cost residents lives and almost cost the lives of First Responders. The failure to provide adequate warning and a comprehensive communication plan falls directly on Sonoma County OES. The Office of Fire and Emergency Services was organizationally dysfunctional before the fires and was in the process of reorganization. Furthermore, neither Helgren nor Hamill had in-field emergency experience (i.e. First Responder management experience) before being hired. Sonoma County OES needs to move under the Sheriff’s Office, like in other Bay Area counties. That way all emergency communication is handled out of one office. It also needs a staff overhaul, with current staff replaced with First Responders, who have actual field experience.

    • Karen

      This would be a better article if the victims of this fire were interviewed and their collective experiences analyzed.
      Did your home burn?
      Where did you live?
      What time did you get out?
      How did you know to leave?
      Did you see a fire truck?
      Did you see a Police Officer?
      Did you hear a siren?
      Did you receive a text?
      Did you receive an agency phone call?
      Did you save your own home by fighting the fire?
      Anything you want to add?

      The administrators are justifying their positions. I know how late we got out and it wasn’t because of any notification. It was due to the explosions getting closer and my house smelling like smoke. So
      it doesn’t matter what system you have if you don’t use it there is no system.

      • Karen

        I have to wholeheartedly agree. We only hear interviews from the personnel who have talking points. The vast majority of us commiserate on social media and tell the same story about how there was little to no warning to evacuate, but our cell phones were working in burn zones during and after the firestorm. The delay in notifying people when CalFire called in at 10:30pm is astonishing. The talking point by OES Manager Helgren that they decided to not use IPAWS (Wireless Alert) because they couldn’t geotarget is nonsense. He wasn’t even awakened until 12:30am, and Tubbs was almost on top of Fountaingrove by that time. No, this horrible disaster highlights how disorganized and dysfunctional Office of Emergency Services truly is.

      • Candi Cane

        I lost my home in Coffey Park….as did so many. I know that people connected with law enforcement got calls around midnight to evacuate. I got a knock on the door at 2am. Those two hours would have been so helpful. We lost our kitty…..and all our possessions. It was inexcusable…but we didn’t have relatives in law enforcement or with fire department. The county’s emergency services department ARE to blame for failing to notify. But none of the many predatory law firms are looking at holding the county accountable….just saying.

  • elaine44

    There are a lot of lessons to be learned here, and I hope that anger and guilt won’t overwhelm the process which needs a very frank overhaul. You don’t have to believe that anyone was negligent or acted in bad faith to understand that things need to be done differently next time, and that next time could be less than a year from now.

    Fundamentally, how people communicate has changed and is changing. More people don’t have landlines at all. Cell phones do not have the uptime regulations and guarantees that landlines do. More communications traffic is as Voice Over IP (VOIP) or otherwise dependent on internet data backbones – as people in Mendocino and Humboldt counties have been learning with distressing regularity as a single fiber cut makes critical communications impossible.

    Disasters aren’t going to happen on Your Best Day. They’re going to come in the middle of the night, in conjunction with power outages and road blockages and communications outages that you don’t predict, when your lead is on vacation and your second-in-command is in the area directly affected by the disaster, with no cell coverage. The style of Wait For Specific Person to weigh in and completely confirm the situation before evacuations are ordered is not appropriate for a disaster that can run at 30 mph, and we’ve seen that now with multiple fires in Napa, Sonoma, Lake, and Mendocino Counties. We have to plan for them as normal.

    Facebook provided critical communications, as people shared rumors and their local experiences. You had to be careful of what you heard and what to trust, but it’s the way a lot of people learned about the fire and where it was. I understand the frustration officials had with rumors, but they also need to appreciate that official communications were simply not fast enough to keep up with the danger, and figure out how that can be better.

    I think also that we need to be thinking more critically about Red Flag Warning events, possibly with more emergency staff on duty on those times, more wind monitoring, and be willing to consider deliberately taking the grid down when winds exceed certain levels, at least until and unless we can reengineer power lines to not spark when they fall or are hit by flying debris.

  • Mark

    It sucked to have a Nieghbor wake me up and not a emergency alert. I get amber alerts from San Diego. Can’t understand why they couldn’t have used it. Chris needs to lose his job. As well as everyone else who dropped the ball. 22 people died when we could have saved them.

  • alogar

    The county must install a siren alarm system (cheap) which will cover the populated portions of Sonoma County. Sirens have been used successfully throughout the world to alert populations to danger. They then turn on their radios! Don’t waste my time with texting, WEA, Reverse 911, SoCalAlert, etc., etc.You’ll miss too many people. when time is of the essence.

Author

Marisa Lagos

Marisa Lagos reports on state politics for KQED’s California Politics and Government Desk, which uses radio, television and online mediums to explore the latest news in California’s Capitol and dig deeper into political influence in the Golden State. Marisa also appears on a weekly podcast analyzing the week’s political news.

Before joining KQED, Marisa worked  at the San Francisco Examiner and Los Angeles Times, and, most recently, for nine years at the San Francisco Chronicle where she covered San Francisco City Hall and state politics, focusing on the California legislature, governor, budget and criminal justice. In 2011, she won a special award for extensive and excellent work in covering California justice issues from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and also helped lead the Chronicle’s award-winning breaking news coverage of the 2010 San Bruno Pacific Gas & Electric explosion. She has also been awarded a number of fellowships from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

Marisa has a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She and lives in San Francisco with her two sons and husband. Email: mlagos@kqed.org Twitter @mlagos Facebook facebook.com/marisalagosnews

Author

Sukey Lewis

Sukey Lewis is a journalist and radio producer with KQED News reporting on criminal justice. In addition to her work at KQED, Sukey has freelanced for Latino U.S.A., Snap Judgment and the Center For Investigative Reporting’s radio show Reveal.

Sukey received a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley.

You can email Sukey at slewis@kqed.org or find her on Twitter at @SukeyLewis.

Author

Lisa Pickoff-White

Lisa Pickoff-White is KQED’s data reporter. Lisa specializes in simplifying complex topics and bringing them to life through compelling visuals, including photography and data visualizations. She previously has worked at the Center for Investigative Reporting and other national outlets. Her work has been honored with awards from the Online News Association, Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and SXSW Interactive.  Follow: @pickoffwhite Email: lpickoffwhite@kqed.org