Communication systems better, but have a way to go…
What worked, what didn’t – tests and studies ahead
The 2017 wildfires were shockingly swift and deadly. They put everyone in the county and particularly the North Sonoma Valley on notice that nature was demanding our attention. The events of 2018, 2019, and 2020 have made it abundantly clear that wildfire will be a continuing concern for the foreseeable future.
On Sept. 27, high winds blew a wildfire from Angwin in Napa County into Sonoma County, to the Highway 12 corridor from Calistoga Road to Adobe Canyon, and across the Mayacamas through Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. The damage wasn’t nearly as bad as in 2017, but it was bad enough to take homes and structures from Skyhawk to Sugarloaf, with no loss of life, thankfully.
Some evacuation warnings and orders did not go out to some residents in Kenwood and the evacuation district 6B2, on the east side of Highway 12 from Pythian to Adobe Canyon roads up to the Mayacamas ridge line. However, there were enough redundancies in the system that everyone did get out in time.
The evacuation procedures in place on Oct. 8, 2017, have been much improved since then, with an influx of federal and state money for upgrades and a lot of study and resident input at public meetings. Yet even with the best of intentions, stuff happens in emergencies that the people in charge want to make better and those on the receiving end certainly want to improve.
There are five levels of alerts – six if you have a great nextdoor neighbor: Nixle text messages from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office; text and phone messages from the Sonoma County Department of Emergency Management; the SoCo alerts; a wailing siren emanating from special emergency short wave radios by NOAA; and cell phone alerts from Verizon and AT&T, sometimes.
Sam Wallis is the Community Alert and Warning Program Manager for the Department of Emergency Management and has been working for years to put these programs into working order.
“We have multiple, overlapping systems to make sure the word gets out,” Wallis said in a phone interview on Oct. 12, “and for the most part, it worked.”
Due to new equipment and unfamiliar operators, not everything worked perfectly on the night of Sunday, Sept. 27, as the fire swept over the Mayacamas from the town of Calistoga to the junction of Calistoga Road and Highway 12 and points south.
“We never got a SoCo alert, and sort of got Nixle alerts,” Peter Gruchawka said. “The one we got was titled, ‘Los Alamos and Calistoga – click on a link for more details.’ I scrolled down to find that Kenwood was being evacuated. Except for Nixle, all the other systems failed.” Gruchawka is a long-time resident of Kenwood who participated in many public discussions about emergency communications after the 2017 fires.
As a resident of Adobe Canyon who experienced the 2017 wildfire and evacuation, this reporter was awake and aware of what was happening this time around and left before area 6B2 was ordered evacuated. I did receive multiple Nixle alerts from the Sheriff’s Office, did not receive SoCo alerts, received no NOAA alert over my special radio, and was not called by AT&T, even though my cell expander was working and internet was still available.
While the Nixle text alerts were sometimes difficult to translate, especially for people who did not understand the obscure terminology and map references available on smart phones, the information was there and broadcast frequently enough that people really understood something bad was happening and they needed to prepare, if not flee, which they did.
The SoCo alert system worked for the most part, Wallis said, but he admitted with some embarrassment, that the system did not work for hundreds of people in the 6B2 evacuation area because of a technical oversight due mostly to new systems.
“We make a mark on a map that a computer reads and then calls everyone within that specifically designated area,” Wallis explained. “The Sheriff’s Office has a new map system and we did not get the specific shape mark on it.” That ‘shape’ is an irregular drawing around an endangered area that the computer can read and select numbers to call from a data base.
“The ultimate goal is to have everything pre-prepared and uploaded, with prerecorded messages ready to go,” Wallis said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) emergency system is very much a manual operation at this time, Wallis said. Someone at the Emergency Department has to write up an alert, email it to the Monterey Bay NOAA station, where it is then rewritten and uploaded into their system. While a single wailing alert was sent out by a NOAA employee working from home, there was no attendant message with it and nothing on the emergency radio channels.
Wallis is still investigating what happened with that alert.
As for the cell phone companies, while AT&T has the better track record of notifying clients of local emergencies, Verizon barely interfaces with the county system and does not seem interested in improving the situation, Wallis said.
“Often, Verizon users don’t get the message,” he said. On the other hand, AT&T messages frequently go well beyond the designated emergency area, owing to the way in which it interfaces with the county’s alert systems. Neither company has showed much concern even following the 2017 fire, that saw cell phone service, already shaky in rural areas of the county, almost disappear as power was cut and there were no battery backup systems in place.
“This is a challenge for the future, too,” Wallis said, “with Frontier and others aiming to get away from land lines altogether.”
Comcast came in for a fair share of criticism, too, as its service to Kenwood was cut off when its Oakmont relay station lost power early in the wildfire, leaving residents without cable phone service and no internet.
The Kenwood Fire house lost service immediately and for the following three or four days, according to Fire Chief Daren Bellach.
“It was a huge impact for us,” Bellach said. “Not so much for the TV part, but not being able to receive or send any emails. A lot of [emergency] communication is done via email during these fires.” That takes pressure off the radio systems being used in the field to coordinate fire fighting.
KFPD director Daymon Doss was working the office phones for the district with Joe Benguerel while the regular personnel were out fighting fires and was not amused with the lack of internet.
“It was initially very frustrating, given the circumstances,” Doss said. “We had power, but no internet.”
And while the cables were undoubtedly burned along Highway 12 as the fire crossed over to Trione-Annadel State Park and forced Oakmont to evacuate, it was restored within days, in spite of the Highway 12 cables being down.
Wallis is seeking to do some real time testing of emergency alert systems in the Valley and will be talking to fire and safety agencies about doing them in the near future.