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Will You Be Notified When Disaster Comes Your Way?

Noah Berger / AP Photo
A home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018.

Whether it’s an earthquake, flood or wildfire ... will you be notified if a disaster is heading your way? Many people who fled last year's Camp Fire in Butte County, California did not receive emergency alerts. We look at what happened on the morning of November 8th in Paradise and Butte County ... and how other communities in Northern California are responding as we enter this year's fire season. 

Gloria Wright typically woke up to birds chirping and the smell of cedar trees. She was one of thousands who made a home in Paradise, a Northern California town that prided itself on its beauty and connection to nature. But on the morning of November 8, residents woke to the sound of high winds and the smell of air choked with smoke. Many who called the town’s 9-1-1 operator were told there was a fire — but that it was miles away. 

It wasn’t. It was in town. And it was moving.

"We were in my son's yard, and the flames were 75 feet in the air, coming at us,” Wright recalled while standing on the front porch of her new, temporary home: a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer for evacuees in Yuba City. 

She fled the Camp Fire along with thousands of residents, who say the only warnings to evacuate they received were from the flames themselves, or from neighbors pounding on their doors.

“There wasn't any warning system,” Wright said.

An alert system does exist, however, and not only for Paradise, but for all of Butte County, including the nearby small towns of Pulga and Concow, as well. But it didn’t work perfectly that morning. 

Now, as the 2019 fire season begins, communities in fire-prone areas across the state are thinking about lessons from the Camp Fire, and they’re concerned: Will they be “the next Paradise.” 

Nearly 30,000 people were forced to evacuate Paradise and the surrounding area as the Camp Fire destroyed more than 18,000 homes, structures and businesses, and killed 85 people. During its first 150 minutes, Butte County Emergency Communications Center staff used a computer program called Code Red to attempt a total of 28,600 phone calls to reach 15,000 cell and landline numbers, according to records acquired and reviewed by CapRadio. But the calls, and the nearly 5,900 texts and emails that were also sent, too often never reached their destinations.

Today, local governments throughout California are working to upgrade how they alert residents. The California Office of Emergency Services issued its own guidelines this spring, and it hopes cities and counties will abide. But experts say the state’s recommendations are often common-sense ones that Paradise and Butte County mostly had in place.

It’s difficult to blame any one issue for the Camp Fire’s death and destruction. Public records indicate there were lag times for notifications of residents and difficulties communicating emergency-alert orders between agencies.

For residents who escaped with their lives but little else, and for people who live in wildfire areas across California, many questions remain: 

How do emergency alert systems work during a major incident like the Camp Fire — and will they work when their time comes?

Can firefighters, law enforcement officers and first responders improve how they communicate during these disasters? 

And what can be done to make sure a tragedy like the Camp Fire doesn’t happen again?

'This Has The Potential To Be A Major Incident’

The Camp Fire was first reported by a caller to Cal Fire’s dispatch center in Butte County at 6:25 a.m. It was a Thursday, and winds were blowing out of the northwest. 

The fire started near Poe Dam in the Feather River Canyon, which is about eight miles east of Paradise. Pacific Gas & Electric says a broken clamp allowed a high-voltage power line to fall in an area clear of trees but full of dry grass at about 6:13 a.m., which Cal Fire investigators have confirmed. 

Winds of 40 miles per hour shot embers along the ground and through canyon, and fires soon started a mile away in Pulga, then four miles away in Concow. Within 90 minutes, the eastern side of Paradise began to burn, according to Butte County dispatch recordings, which CapRadio reviewed to better understand how agencies responded that morning.

As fire departments from the region answered calls for assistance, Cal Fire, which also operates the Paradise fire station, began to recognize that evacuations might be required.

Fire Captain Matt McKenzie, the first incident commander that morning, cracked the mic on his radio at 6:32 a.m. and asked for trucks to provide a mobile water source for firefighters. 

“This has the potential for a major incident,” he told fire dispatch at 6:44 a.m.

Three minutes later, Cal Fire called Butte County dispatch and notified them of the fire.

At 6:56 a.m., McKenzie ordered emergency evacuation notifications for Pulga, which were processed and relayed to residents 17 minutes later, at 7:13 a.m., by the Butte County Sheriff’s Department Emergency Communications Center in Oroville using the Code Red program. 

Battalion Chief Curtis Lawrie took command, and at 7:26 a.m. Cal Fire dispatch asked him if he wanted to evacuate Concow.

“Affirmative,” he replied.

There were communication issues between agencies during those early hours. According to the Butte County Sheriff’s Department, a patrol sergeant radioed the Concow order to his dispatch center with the understanding it would be communicated to the information systems manager. But spokeswoman Megan McMann says IT has no recollection of receiving the order, and it is not in their notes from the day. 

The blaze was traveling so rapidly that, just 80 minutes after it started, Lawrie told a Cal Fire dispatcher to expect an evacuation alert for Paradise. 

That warning quickly turned into an order for the east side of the town, at 7:44 a.m., which was relayed by the Butte County sheriff’s dispatch center.

Thirteen minutes later, there was the first order for eastern Paradise, Pentz Road east to Highway 70.

Paradise’s Town Hall’s IT manager at the time was Josh Marquis, who says he received a call at home at approximately 8 a.m. that a warning would be issued, and that someone would meet him with an update at the Town Hall parking lot. Paradise Police Chief Eric Reinbold says shortly after the dispatcher’s 8 a.m. announcement to patrol units, he received a call from Cal Fire with the same information. He says he then called Town Hall Manager Lauren Gill.

“I just remember hearing that news and realizing this is worst-case scenario,” said Reinbold. He called Gill.

“She was in disbelief,” he said.

But Paradise Town Hall’s IT specialist didn’t send its first alert until nearly an hour later, at 8:48 a.m., shortly after a retired chief told employees to leave. He then followed up with a second notification at 9:09 a.m. 

It was the last thing he did before he evacuated to Chico, and Paradise would not send another notification.

‘I Was Very Surprised’

Paradise Town Manager Lauren Gill says she woke up at 7 a.m. on the morning of the Camp Fire, saw smoke and called the fire chief, who told her the blaze was in Pulga. She says it didn’t occur to her that Paradise would have to issue any notifications for anything more serious than the negative health effects from all the smoke.

Before November 8, a fire had never crossed the Feather River, according to Gill. “A fire in the town of Pulga has never been a threat to the town of Paradise,” she said. “No one was thinking at that point, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re in danger.’”

By the time she got to work, which she says was soon after, the eastern neighborhoods of Paradise were already being evacuated.

The size and speed of the Camp Fire took Gill and many others by surprise. This in part contributed to delays in issuing emergency notifications and also difficulty communicating between agencies.

But officials also note that the magnitude of the fire wreaked incredible damage on Butte County’s communication infrastructure, disabling towers and melting fiber-optic cables, which prevented residents from receiving emergency alerts. Dispatch centers were also flooded with calls by residents and first responders.

Gill says she didn’t think the first evacuation of Paradise that morning was unusual, because the fire department often asks for evacuations or road closures.

But neither sheriff, police or fire officials, nor Paradise’s town manager, could explain why Paradise’s Police dispatch was not notified until 15 minutes after the first evacuations for the town were issued, and 30 minutes after incident command had radioed that a warning would likely be required.

As Butte County issued its third evacuation order for Paradise, Town Hall was issuing its first.

There was confusion over who is supposed to send notifications. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said “Paradise is responsible for its own evacuations.” But Gill claimed the town has traditionally acted as support staff for the county, and has not been the initiator of emergency alerts. 

“Typically, a call to evacuate will come from the incident commander on the fire,” Gill said. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, we need to evacuate these zones,’ and we have the mechanism to do that. We’re supporting them.”

The speed of the fire also caught other Paradise Town Hall staff off guard.

Gill’s assistant Collette Curtis says she was on the phone with a local radio station and was shocked when retired Cal Fire chief told her, “‘We need to evacuate this building right now,’” she recalled.

She says she ended the interview, grabbed her purse and walked out the back door, which is where she encountered flames.

They were “right behind the building,” she said. 

“I was very surprised by that, because we had been working on the premise that the fire was on the eastern side of town,” Curtis said. “And in our experience, fires didn’t move quite that fast.”

The incident command post for the Camp Fire was located in the parking lot of Scooter’s Cafe, a 30 minute drive from Paradise. Because of the distance, no one from the police station or Paradise Town Hall was at incident command, and this impacted communication between the groups.

Though commanders initially called for bulldozers, aircraft and other fire engines, Cal Fire Division Chief John Messina says firefighters quickly abandoned combating the blaze to focus on evacuations.

“They were rescuing people in Concow. They were sheltering people in place in the creek, moving people to the temporary refuge area,” he said.

And dispatch was inundated with updates as unidentified first responders radioed for help. "There are flames on the porch," said one first responder. They evacuated a retirement community, a hospital, a mobile home park — and then an entire town. 

Messina says he was not surprised by the delay in getting information from the field to the people who needed it. "It takes a little bit of process and it’s just like anything else. Nothing is immediate,” he said. “For 15 minutes to go out to the public, that is not unreasonable. There's always a reflex time in any order you give in any type of operation." 

He also says incident commanders typically get reports from firefighters on the front lines, but that didn’t happen during the Camp Fire, because it moved so rapidly.

“The only reports we had of fire spread was when a civilian called to say, ‘I have a fire in my backyard in Paradise,’” Messina said. 

He’s still trying to make sense of what happened: “I’ve been processing this for months,” Messina said.

Honea says “situational awareness” during a fire can be “very, very difficult,” and that notifying people can be equally challenging. He prefers the method of knocking on doors when possible. 

As for why Paradise police dispatch did not alert people sooner, Lt. Tony Borgman says that, since no one from the county called Paradise officials or the police department until 8 a.m., the lone town dispatcher could not have known the fire was as close as it was.

“Given the situation, the circumstances and the resources available, I do believe the dispatcher, and eventually additional dispatchers, honestly did the best that they humanly could do, given what they had,” Borgman said.

Megan McMann, who is community relations coordinator and was at the sheriff’s office in Oroville, was relaying evacuation notices to the public via social media. She frequently uses the word “chaotic” to describe that morning

“We were being outrun before we even know we were in a race,” she said. 

How Evacuation Alerts Work — And Why They Sometimes Don’t

A major obstacle to notifying residents they needed to evacuate the Camp Fire was the compromised telecommunications infrastructure. That’s one reason why it’s hard to tell how well the emergency-alert system worked.

There were approximately 15,000 landlines, cell numbers and emails in the Code Red system for Paradise, Pulga and Concow. And while 64 percent of the calls went through to a human being or to voicemail, only a third were answered by a person, and about 30 percent went to voicemail. And calls to the remaining 36 percent, some 5,400 numbers, did not go through.

At the time of the fire, there were an estimated 229,000 residents in Butte County. But only 132,000 emails, texts or phone numbers were in the Code Red system, according to Onsolve, the company that developed the software. 

Systems like this use a mix of landline numbers that are found in the 9-1-1 system, plus business, and cell phone numbers and emails supplied by people who sign up for notifications.

When an alert is issued, the system makes up to six attempts to reach a number. Combined, Butte County and Paradise called nearly 24,000 numbers a total of 46,000 times. About 14,000 of the numbers on file were reached. And Code Red logs show a combined 4,674 texts and 4,349 emails were also sent.

By the time Paradise Town Hall began trying to contact people, however, all but a tiny percentage of the numbers had already been called by Butte County. 

And three out of every five attempts by Paradise didn’t go through, due to an “operator intercept” or being “timed out,” according to logs provided by the Paradise Police Department and Onsolve. 

Meanwhile, some areas of Paradise, such as the west side of town — referred to as “Emergency Fire zones” 4, 9, and 10 — were never sent notifications, according to Code Red logs. 

Messina radioed an order for zone 4 at 8:49 a.m. and says he gave an order “face-to-face” with someone from the Butte County Sheriff’s Office at about 9:30 a.m. for zones 9 and 10.

And some evacuation warnings — Zones 1, 11, and 12 — were not switched to “orders” until after 4 o’clock that afternoon.

Messina and officials with Butte County say they did not know why the warnings were changed to orders, or why that western neighborhood of Paradise was never notified.

‘It Always Works Great — Until It Doesn’t’

Since the Camp Fire raced through Pulga, Concow and Paradise — driven by a perfect mix of high winds, abundant dry grasses and low humidity — neighboring counties and towns in fire-prone regions throughout California have realized they too are vulnerable. 

For instance, the U.S. Forest Service says 147 million trees have died statewide since 2010 from drought and bark beetles. “Obviously, if you have a lot of dead trees in one area, it’s a higher fire threat,” said Holly Powers, assistant director of the Placer County Office of Emergency Services. 

Powers’ office has started releasing bids in hopes getting 11,000 trees cut down, but so far it’s only removed 1,500.

Some counties go it alone, such as Butte, while others collaborate, like Sacramento, Yolo and Placer, which share an emergency alert system. 

But there is a common theme: None of the systems are perfect. 

During a recent visit to the Placer County dispatch center in Auburn, Rachel Cleveland worked at a computer, clicking on a series of points on a map.

“Head over to Hilltop,” she said while drawing a line over an area that has flooded in the past. She’s demonstrating how the county’s notification software, Everbridge, allows her to draw a polygon over a geographic area that she would like to send an alert.   

“I've included all of my roads, then I'm gonna finish off my shape and it's gonna tell me how many contacts I have,” she said as an orange blob appeared on her screen.

Although it took between 15 and 40 minutes for evacuation orders to be relayed from incident command to the public during the early hours of the Camp Fire, it only takes Cleveland 90 seconds to identify residents who will receive a notification. And once she hits send, it takes three seconds to start pinging phones.

Dispatchers in Placer, Yolo and Sacramento counties can provide support and issue warnings or orders to any of the 991,000 numbers or emails in their system during a crisis.

Another option local governments have is the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system, or WEA, which sends a text message to everyone within cell phone range of county towers. The Amber Alert system already uses WEA technology to send texts about missing children. But these messages are limited to 90 characters, in English only, and they disappear after reading.

New Federal Communications Commission regulations will increase the character capacity to 360 characters, and will include a Spanish language option, an opt-in text message and a new category for public safety alerts that are for lower-level events. FEMA has delayed the implementation of its new system multiple times this year. 

And there remain 16 counties in the state that still do not have access to the WEA system. Ten  are in the process of signing up, according to Cal OES. 

At the time of the Camp Fire, Sutter County did not have access to WEA. Spokesman Chuck Smith says it is not an ideal emergency alert. 

“When cell phone towers go down like at a fire or something, you lose the ability to communicate,” he said, adding that you have to use multiple methods to alert residents. “That's why we rely, No. 1, on radio and television and print [web notifications] to get emergency messages out."

Sutter is now in the process of signing up for the federal WEA alerts. 

Butte County Cal Fire chose to evacuate in stages, which still resulted in jammed roads. It did not use the WEA system, though it did have the technology.

Some counties in California still do things the old fashioned way. 

Lake County has sirens — four of them. The sites have their own radio channel, controlled by the sheriff's department. But Dale Carnathan, the emergency services manager for Lake County, says the wailing sirens would only alert residents that something is wrong. 

"We have limited [cell phone] service up there,” he said. “So, we encourage people to use landlines, to use other tools to seek information. Look around. If you see smoke and it's blowing your way, you ought to be headed the other way.”

Other counties and Cal OES are reluctant to endorse the idea of sirens as a means of alerting residents, since the noise alone contains no information. 

Kelly Huston with Cal OES says whether it’s the WEA system, calls and emails, or sirens, every system that exists is only as good as the ability of people to acquire information.

“You could technically say, ‘Yes, we alerted people of something that’s going on,’” Huston said. “But if people don’t know what to do, or they’re unsure about it or they just ignore it because they think it’s a test, then even though you may have actually technically alerted them, it’s not an effective alert.”

Another major challenge during the Camp Fire was that an untold number of cell phone towers went out of service. Verizon reported 14 of its 20 towers in the county were offline on November 8. Only one was destroyed. The rest didn't burn up, as many people assumed; the fiber optic cable — supplied by a third party that feeds the sites — were destroyed.

The combination of thousands of phones calls trying to fit within an ever-disappearing number of fiber lines contributed to the failure to reach a third of the numbers in the Code Red database.

Verizon vice president Phillip French recently gave a tour of a site in Placer County, where the company’s equipment was housed in thick concrete sheds that are designed to withstand a wildfire. They also come with backup generators in case of power outages. 

"The size and scope of what's burned dictates what can be impacted for us. We lost one cell site. Everything else was impacted by a third party’s fiber," French said.

He says some people have asked about burying the cables underground. B that makes them susceptible to damage by bulldozers during firefighting operations, he said, and they would still be susceptible to the heat of a fire. 

“I’m not aware of anything in the industry today that’s going to protect against a fire burning at that temperature and at that rate,” he said, adding that poles also burned during the Camp Fire. “So even if the fiber was protected, the poles are gone.” 

People in the town of Mariposa, which is about an hour northeast of Merced, know what it feels like to be without phone service.

Cell reception in the hills and outside of the town can be spotty or nonexistent, depending on the carrier. Kristie Mitchell with the sheriff's department says deputies have phones that rely on satellite signals, instead. 

The county has also been working to improve cell-phone service, including partnering with AT&T to bring in cell towers powered by generators; and Verizon, who helped increase cell reception in the river canyon during the Ferguson Fire in 2018.

Butte County Sheriff Honea says the preferred method of evacuation is orderly, a zone or two at a time, with first responders going door-to-door to help people who require it. But in a mass-evacuation situation like the Camp Fire, notifications using technology are required — though the technology is fallible. 

As Honea put it: “Technology's limited. It always works great — until it doesn't."

‘You Need To Be Ready’

In Butte County and the town of Paradise, a team of investigators from the National Institute of Science and Technology are reviewing every aspect of the fire. But Paradise Town Hall Manager Lauren Gill isn't sure what will come from those findings.

"We need to put some things in place that will help us evacuate safer, better, faster — if that's possible,” she said. “It's hard to evacuate a whole town at one time. I don't know that any town is set up to do that.”

Honea is now pushing for a more effective way of alerting residents. “The system, in my view, needs to be one that is much, much more streamlined in terms of how it's accessed,” he said.

Onsolve, the parent company for Code Red, says there needs to be more options for how to connect with residents in the case of an evacuation.

“Services are already in your home, such as the devices that hang on the wall and know the temperature and alert you — anything that can make a noise,” said Onsolve general manager Troy Harper. 

He says he previously worked in emergency operations during the two worst fires in Florida’s history, which he says resemble what happened in Paradise. 

“By the time they figure out where the fire is, it’s often too late to evacuate. Butte did an amazing job,” Harper said.

For the first time this past March, Cal OES sent a list of guidelines for emergency alert systems to every county in the state. It stressed the need for responding agencies to contact any neighboring communities that might be impacted by a disaster, and that communications should also give instructions, such as sheltering in place or evacuating, and how to go about either option.

The panel of experts that oversaw the 85 page report also says that notifications for residents have come too late, if at all, during past disasters. 

Caroline Thomas Jacobs was the Cal OES project manager for the report. She says the state has learned from recent emergencies, such as the mudslides in Montecito, which killed 23 people in 2018.

“In the mudslides, there were some that were in advisory zones, but then the mudslide ultimately hit that zone, as opposed to just the place that the people were ordered to evacuate from,” she said.

The state’s new guidelines also recommend proper staffing for departments tasked with issuing alerts. The town of Paradise, for instance, says it had one dispatcher working on the morning the Camp Fire broke out.

California is still crafting a plan to create universal terminology for emergency situations, as well, so that every local government and responding agency would use the same terminology when issuing alerts. 

Cal OES also urges counties to work with cell phone and landline providers to offer as much redundancy as possible should fiber-optic lines be damaged during an emergency.

And, ultimately, the guidelines say agencies responsible for issuing notifications should not hesitate — and should not worry about causing panic:

“When public warning information is delivered by a credible alerting authority, the public usually responds by following the recommended actions. Rarely do such warning messages lead to mistrust or panic.”

As the 2019 fire season begins, Cal Fire says the agency is increasingly using satellite technology and California National Guard drones to identify and monitor fires. Chief Thom Porter says trucks are equipped with cellular, satellite and Very High Frequency radio connectivity, which allows incident commanders to get firefighters to new hotspots sooner.

But he says clearing properties of brush, and creating wide swaths of turned-over earth that establish fire lines or fuel breaks, are still the most effective ways to stop the spread of a fire. 

“Wildfire can come to you no matter where you are,” Porter said recently while discussing Wildfire Preparedness Week. “It’ll burn to the beach. It’ll burn to the sand and the desert. So you need to be ready.”

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