.Upfront: Warning Signs

North Bay lawmakers set to unveil emergency early-warning legislation in 2018

It’s no exaggeration to say that I nearly died in the Nuns fire.

Around three in the morning on Oct. 9—and without any official warning from anyone (or any device) that a deadly catastrophe was unfolding—I left my home, only to be blinded by heavy smoke and swirling ash as I tried to navigate my car down Bennett Ridge, a mountainside community east of Santa Rosa.

It was an excruciatingly slow process, as visibility was nil. Flames surrounded the car and fell from above. There was no time for caution, only escape. The smoke blocked my vision and also made breathing difficult. As I drove down the road, neighboring houses were already succumbing—either fully engulfed or within moments of going up.

A quick and tense glance back at the house my parents bought in 1974 provided a view of embers falling from the sky, and the beginnings of a fire along what used to be a beautiful wooden deck—a fire that would annihilate my childhood home.

As the smoke cleared, the news was horrible. More than three quarters of the homes on Bennett Ridge were lost, and one of my neighbors had died.

But for hours leading up to this perilous escape, there hadn’t been a single warning from emergency officials, or from anyone. There were no blaring alarms, no police or fire sirens, no phone calls of warning. Around midnight, a car heading down the hill honked its horn, but that could have someone tooting a farewell after a Sunday-night visit. It certainly wasn’t an urgent message declaring a dire emergency or a need to evacuate. Those things never occurred on Bennett Ridge.

The Nuns fire hit Bennett Ridge hard, and a simulation created by the National Weather Service says the winds were likely between 75 and 90 miles per hour. The speed, force and intensity of the fire has given rise to the argument that an early-warning system may not have saved many houses. It’s hard to fight a fire that’s raining down from above and moving swiftly from treetop to treetop.

But it’s also true that an early-warning system may have given people enough time to salvage some personal belongings. I’d liked to have saved the American flag given to my mother at Arlington National Cemetery when my father, a Marine Corps war hero, was laid to rest. But there was no chance to grab those family heirlooms—or even a spare pair of shoes.

The absence of a regional early warning for Napa and Sonoma did not go unnoticed in those counties, and around the state, where fires continue to burn late into the year. But new legislation may address that.

The online journal Wildfire Today reported that the day before the series of fires forever changed Sonoma and Napa counties, “all cell phones in Rincon Valley east of Santa Rosa loudly blared with a message about a child abduction in San Francisco about 48 air miles to the south, but the Amber Alert system was not used as the wildfires bore down on the densely packed communities in Sonoma County.”

No such alert was issued in the early hours of the fire. Instead, local officials leaned on the Nixle and SoCo alert systems, which were inadequate to the task and wound up sending messages to fewer than 35,000 cell phone users, reported Wildfire Today, in a county of more than 500,000 people.

The Nixle and SoCo systems require people to opt-in or sign up in advance—but the Catch-22 was that if residents didn’t know to sign up in advance, chances are they didn’t. Most learned of the fires from first responders banging on their doors, or through fleeing neighbors, or because their house was already on fire.

It may be too little, too late for some in burned-out Bennett Ridge, but regional elected officials announced plans this month to get the whole state on the same page when it comes to an emergency alert system. As-yet-unwritten legislation would require a robust wireless alert system in all 58 counties and create standards for their use.

The program would utilize the existing wireless-emergency alert system administered by the FCC to provide early warnings from local officials. As has been widely reported, warnings were never issued in the North Bay fires through the so-called wireless-emergency alert (WEA) system set up by the feds. The new legislation would presumably standardize and update the WEA technology and protocols to promote wider use.

One of the would-be bill’s sponsors is Marin County–based State Assemblyman Marc Levine, whose spokeswoman Shannon Flaherty explained that WEAs are short, geographically targeted messages sent to mobile devices during emergencies. Marin County officials, particularly those in West Marin, have been paying close attention to developments on the early-warning front, given the daunting challenge of evacuating fire-sensitive areas along the coast, where the roads are few and the fire-fuel is ample.

The warnings range from presidential alerts, imminent-threat alerts and AMBER alerts. The first is issued in the event of a national emergency; the second alerts are issued for events such as the fire disasters this fall; and the third are issued when law enforcement enlists the public to help locate abducted children. The system has been stymied by insufficient upgrades that haven’t kept up with the pace of technology, which is one of the reasons that local officials did not use the system during the North Bay fires. Another reason the system wasn’t used, as offered early in the aftermath of the fire, was they didn’t want people to panic by issuing the warnings.

State Sen. Mike McGuire is onboard for the legislative push, and a staffer for the Healdsburg Democrat says the goal is to create emergency-alert uniformity among the counties. The North Bay delegation of McGuire, Levine, Assemblyman Jim Wood, Sen. Bill Dodd and Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry aims to offer legislation that will require every county in California to adopt the most up-to-date WEA system, with trained operators who can implement an evacuation order using the system.

The benefit of the WEA is that residents don’t have to opt-in or opt-out of it to get the geographically tailored warning. All you need is a cell phone or tablet that can receive the text-like message warning of imminent danger. (Another suggested reform would give more leeway to the number of characters that can be utilized in an alert.)

“Since WEAs are geographically targeted, most mobile phone users do not need to opt-in or be added to a registry,” Flaherty says.

“For example,” she adds, “let’s say an individual is a Los Angeles County resident but was visiting Sonoma County during the fires. If that individual had a WEA-capable mobile device, they should have received the mobile alert regardless of their residency in Los Angeles.”

According to the FCC, most major wireless providers carry WEA-capable devices. Individuals can confirm if their device is capable of receiving the alerts and that they are available in their area by checking with their wireless provider. It’s up to the provider to opt-in or out under the program, says the FCC. “Wireless companies volunteer to participate in the WEA system, which is the result of a unique public-private partnership between the FCC, FEMA and the wireless industry to enhance public safety,” says the FCC website.

The WEA was created in 2012 under the Warning, Alert and Response Network Act (WARN), and since then, reports the FCC, some 21,000 WEA alerts have been issued. None, however, were issued in the North Bay fires.

“The local alerts themselves have to be issued by local authorities,” says Doherty. “In that way, local providers must do the opting-in. While FEMA is the host of WEAs, individual alerting authorities such as cities or counties must receive training before receiving alert-issuing authority. This is why we want to see counties given the resources and training necessary to ensure all counties have alert-issuing authority.”

There’s no projected cost to implement the program, and it’s unclear what the bill will do to encourage wireless companies to participate.

“We will have to see what the Appropriations Committee decides in May,” says Flaherty. “Currently, it is still a legislative concept, the bill still needs to be drafted and introduced. We expect to know closer to spring what its timeline for approval will look like.”

Spring is just in time for what used to be known as “fire season” in California, which officials now warn is a year-round phenomenon.

Tom Gogola contributed reporting. 

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