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Emergency alerts draw complaints in fast-moving wildfires

| Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, 7:42 p.m.
In this Oct. 9, 2017, file photo, flames from a wildfire leap into the air in Napa, Calif. For many residents in the path of one of California's deadliest blazes, talk is of wind direction, evacuations and goodbyes.
In this Oct. 9, 2017, file photo, flames from a wildfire leap into the air in Napa, Calif. For many residents in the path of one of California's deadliest blazes, talk is of wind direction, evacuations and goodbyes.

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The story is repeated again and again: The dead of night, no warning, then panic after realizing the smoke and flames were approaching.

Fleeing residents from across Northern California wine country, where at least 26 people have died in wildfires that started Sunday, complained Thursday that they had no notice from authorities that the blazes were closing in, or the warnings arrived too late.

In Sonoma County, officials used phone calls and other systems in an attempt to alert residents but also decided against using what's known as a wireless emergency alert, a widespread message sent to cellphones in the region, sometimes compared to an Amber Alert for missing children.

Because of its broad reach, officials concluded the message could panic people who were not in danger, triggering mass evacuations that would snarl traffic and delay emergency vehicles, county spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque said.

The alerts “would have reached many people not affected by the fire,” she said. “It would have delayed our response.”

Communities typically use an array of emergency systems designed to alert residents of danger: text messages, phone calls, emails and tweets. Authorities say they will review those methods after hearing concerns that some messages never got through.

In Santa Rosa, Christil Bell was one of the residents who said she was left in the dark. She learned about the fires from neighbors, who woke up her family at 4:30 a.m. Monday and urged them to flee.

Authorities “knew the fire was out of control and coming our way. We had to run with nothing. No credit cards, no identification, no clothes, no nothing,” she said.

Her daughter was called by college classmates, but Bell said there was no sign of police or firefighters in her neighborhood.

Ernest Chapman of Santa Rosa said his pit bull Sabrina woke him up Monday about 2:30 a.m., when he was stunned to find smoke, falling embers and fire. Neighbors were honking horns and yelling for everyone to flee.

Chapman, a mechanic and auto buff, escaped with his two dogs and not much else. He didn't have time, even though the fire had been burning for about five hours and the wind direction put his neighborhood directly in the path.

“There was no warning, no nothing,” said Chapman, whose house was destroyed.

As he fled, he said he saw one police officer on a loudspeaker and one firetruck entering his neighborhood.

State fire agency Chief Ken Pimlott said it was too early to know if the warnings worked as intended and that officials would look into that after the danger passes.

“People were in bed, asleep at midnight, and these fires came down on these communities with no warning within minutes,” Pimlott said.

“There was little time to notify anybody by any means,” he added.

In emergencies where a few minutes or even seconds can save lives, the notification systems have inherent blind spots. Not everyone will get the message. The messages are often short and can be easily missed.

One state planning manual urges authorities to use multiple alerts.

“People rarely act on a single warning message alone,” said the report, posted on the Governor's Office of Emergency Services website.

Sonoma County uses a service that sends out text messages or emails when an evacuation is ordered, but residents have to sign up to receive them. The county also uses a mobile phone app that can receive messages, but again it requires a resident to opt in.

The county also can trigger automated emergency calls to landlines in an area threatened by fire, but that would only reach homes with those phones.

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Department said the county's emergency alert service texted thousands of warnings to residents to flee Sunday night. However, nearly 80 cellphone towers were knocked out or badly damaged, officials said.

Some evacuees escaped only when they realized the fire was nearly at their doors.

David Leal was at his home in Santa Rosa about 11:30 p.m. Sunday when strong winds began stirring and he smelled smoke. Growing anxious, he called a fire dispatcher but was assured that there was no need to worry unless he saw flames. He and his wife went to bed.

At 2 a.m., they were jarred awake when a sudden blast of wind knocked a lamp off a nightstand. Leal looked out at neighbors who were packing up to get out. There was never a phone call or a knock on the door.

“We didn't know what was going on, but just instinct led us to agree on the decision to evacuate,” he said.

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