Butte County to Reassess Emergency Alert System in Aftermath of Camp Fire

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A home burns during the Camp Fire in Paradise, California on Nov. 8, 2018. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Christina Hixson remembers seeing flames from her home in Paradise on the morning of Nov. 8. It was the Camp Fire, which had ignited earlier that morning in the nearby unincorporated community of Pulga.

"There was no evacuation notice," said Hixson, who said she didn't get any warnings from officials. "We just knew it was time to go."

For Caroline Bolin from the neighboring town of Magalia, that's a familiar refrain. "The only reason why I knew [about the fire] is because the sun was blood red and so was the sky," she said.

The fire destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and killed at least 85 people in Butte County, making it the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in modern California history — despite the fact that the county had an emergency alert system and an evacuation plan that had been tested.

"This fire was outrunning us in terms of our ability to notify people and get evacuations done before we really even understood we were in a race," said Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea in an interview with KQED.

Honea said the county used an emergency mass notification system and had a staged evacuation plan based on zones that people lived in, but his department had never seen a fire of this speed or magnitude before, which made the emergency response difficult.

The county used a system called codeRED to send out emergency alerts. It's an opt-in system, meaning residents only receive evacuation alerts on their cell phones if they've signed up for the service.

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So while some people were notified about the fire, others in evacuation zones were not, meaning many of them did not start to evacuate until it was clear to everyone in town that it was time to flee.

Sandra Peltola of Magalia says she ended up caught in gridlocked traffic. “People [were] acting crazy, and driving erratically, putting other people in danger," she said. "It got crazy.”

CodeRED isn't the only wireless notification system that can be used in emergency situations. There is an alert system already in use in multiple California counties where notifications can be sent to cell phones regardless of whether residents have opted-in.

It's called Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA), and the system acts like a geotargeted Amber Alert. These types of alerts were used in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties during last year's wildfires and mudslides, according to Kelly Huston, deputy director of crisis communications for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES).

"We now have direct access to the public through these technologies," Huston said. "It's really trying to figure out how do we do it in the most effective way, without missing large populations who need to get an emergency alert."

Huston said WEA can miss large populations, for instance, if cell towers go down or if there's no service in an area.

Similar concerns over emergency alert systems were raised following the North Bay Fires last year. Sonoma County's failure to effectively alert residents was called out by both state and internal reports, and this fall, the county tested several alert systems including WEA, which the county did not use during the fires.

In the aftermath of the Camp Fire, Butte County Sheriff Honea acknowledges that his department will be looking for ways to improve its emergency alert procedures and considering changes to its alert system. But, according to Honea, no system is perfect.

“I don’t want people to have a false sense of security or false belief that there is a perfect solution to every situation and that you can guarantee with 100 percent certainty that one particular system is going to work every time," he said.

There will be a lot of lessons to learn from the blaze, Honea said. And he hopes officials will get a chance to sit down soon and analyze their emergency response.

But right now, local leaders are dealing with immediate issues, like finding work and homes for thousands of Camp Fire refugees. Figuring out how to do it better in the next fire may have to wait until the community has more fully recovered.

KQED's Michelle Wiley and Sonja Hutson contributed reporting to this story.