Camp Fire-Ravaged Butte County to Use New Siren to Warn of Evacuations

Abandoned vehicles sit on the side of a road, destroyed by flames, in Paradise on Nov. 9, 2018. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Butte County is set to unveil a new siren warning aimed at alerting residents to evacuate during emergencies, nearly nine months after 85 people in the county died in the devastating Camp Fire.

The European-style siren has been installed in the county's patrol vehicles, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said in an interview with KQED News. He said his department has developed a policy that calls for using it when deputies don't have the ability to go door to door to warn citizens of an imminent threat.

"We will go through neighborhoods sounding that particular siren. That's the only time we will use it. It means there's an evacuation in effect in that area," Honea said, adding that the tone is different from emergency sirens normally heard in the United States, which will in theory make it standout in an evacuation.

He said while having uniformed law enforcement knock on doors is the most effective way to notify people, it's unrealistic during a major disaster.

"There's no jurisdiction that has a sufficient number of resources," Honea said, "especially when you're dealing with a no-notice event like the Camp Fire."

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The inability of counties to effectively alert residents of a fast-approaching wildfire was an issue during the Camp Fire as well as the North Bay Fires in 2017. This fire season, PG&E has begun preemptive shutdowns of power lines during high fire danger, leading some residents to worry about how that could impact evacuation warnings.

"For some, a Facebook notice was the only notice they got (during the Camp Fire)," said Chico resident Susan Sullivan outside of a recent hearing on PG&E's proposed rate increases. "With power shutoffs, that notice won't be there. There won't be Facebook to get the word out. Phones might not be charged."

Sullivan also flagged concerns about whether law enforcement vehicles blaring the new evacuation siren will be able to make it into neighborhoods if a disaster has already brought down trees and power lines, rendering roads impassable. But she said any attempts to improve emergency communications is welcome.

"Anything is a help," she said.

Sheriff Honea hopes the new siren will help maximize his agency's reach during an emergency, noting that it's difficult to ensure universal communications.

"No matter how many platforms you message on, there is no way to ensure 100% saturation of your message," Honea said. "Technology may fail you when the infrastructure goes down. So I think we need to bring a clear understanding of what our capabilities are and manage expectations."

Honea says the idea to install the European-style siren tones in Butte County vehicles is borrowed from similar initiatives taken by Sonoma and Napa counties following the North Bay Fires in 2017.

The city of Malibu is considering stationary loudspeaker siren towers so it can broadcast audio messages using renewable power sources that would serve as an alternative in case the primary power infrastructure fails. Malibu was hit by the deadly Woolsey Fire just as the Camp Fire was ravaging Northern California.

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