Finding a Way Through the Flames When 911 Can't Help

Adrian and Elly Diaz lost their Redwood Valley home in the wildfires that began on Oct. 8, 2017. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

As fires broke out all over Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties on Oct. 8, hundreds of people in the path of the fires called 911 with urgent questions. Should we evacuate? Which way should we turn to stay out of the fire's path?

A KQED investigation surveyed thousands of 911 calls from that night and found that, in many cases, 911 operators could not give people clear directions on which way to flee.

Elly Diaz stands near the remains of her home in Mendocino County's Redwood Valley. She and her husband, Adrian, and their three boys fled the Northern California wildfire siege that began Oct. 8, 2017. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

Adrian Diaz lives with his family in Redwood Valley in Mendocino County. A neighbor awakened them around 1 a.m. as the fire rushed toward their homes. He called 911 from their home phone, while his wife and three kids prepared to flee. He got disconnected so he called back from his cellphone.

“They didn't tell me it was an evacuation,” he said. “They just said exit whichever way you feel is the safest. And I was like, OK, well, I don't know — because I didn't know if it was worse north or worse south.”

Adrian and Elly Diaz sort through the remains of their home in Redwood Valley. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

Two hours later, someone else in Redwood Valley called 911 and asked the operator where to evacuate. The operator said she didn’t know.

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“You would have to look at where the fire is and not go that way. I can’t really direct you,” she said. “I can’t picture where you are. You’re going to have to use your common sense.”

The 911 calls showed that operators across California were doing what they could to help people, but the number of fires and the speed with which they spread strained the operators' ability to help.

"You could have a hundred dispatchers on that night and you're still going to be overwhelmed," said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the governor's Office of Emergency Services. "I think the thing we need to continue to reinforce is that if you live in a disaster-prone state like California, you need to have a plan. ... Empower yourself and your family."

His agency is conducting a review of how the emergency system handled those October fires, which could lead to changes at the state and county level. Already, Sonoma County is retraining its 911 staff on how to help people in a fire's path.

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