Despite improvements since Tubbs Fire emergency notifications remain imperfect
Written by Marc Albert
Gary Liess surveys the remnants of his home since 1990. photo credit: (Credit: Marc Albert/KRCB)
One of the most glaring lessons from the Tubbs Fire was the failure to warn those in its path. Concerned that blanket alerts would cause massive traffic jams, officials hesitated. The results were tragic. Much work has been done in the close to four years since, but issues remain.
Living three and a half miles up a dead end road between Sugar Loaf Ridge and St Helena Rd, Gary Liess figured he might be on his own in a major wildfire. Following 2017s Tubbs Fire, he became more vigilant; removing brush, creating defensible space.
One evening last year, as the Glass Fire burned out of control over the ridge to the east, a neighbor, who'd been assessing the distant flames from his motorcycle, drove up with an ominous warning.
"He said you've got maybe four hours before it gets here," Liess said.
An hour later, he saw spot fires exploding downhill to the west, far ahead of the main fire. He raced home, rounded up their cats and some electronics. His wife Carolyn insisted they leave immediately.
"She had seen the documentary on that, I think it was the Paradise, how people y'know dicked around for an extra five, ten, fifteen minutes and didn't make it out," he said.
Recalling it months later, he remembers no warnings from the tv, radio, calls or texts, though at some point, his phone was in another room. He credits his neighbor for being able to escape less than 90 minutes before his home of three decades was obliterated.
Three years after the emergency warning system failed so dramatically during the Tubbs Fire, Liess's experience shows issues remain.
It's up to Sam Wallis, with the county's Department of Emergency Management to fix those issues. Since the Tubbs fire, the county doesn't count on a single person to issue alerts. More people are trained, and they aren't dependent only on the sheriff's dispatch center. A system of wildfire cameras can alert officials faster. Still, other problems remain, and fixing them is no easy task.
"Technology is a two edged sword," Wallis said. "There are many things that we have right now that are so much superior to what we had even five or ten years ago, we just have some amazing capabilities, but from an emergency management point of view, things have in many ways been getting worse."
Old Civil Defense sirens aren't widely missed, as they couldn't convey much other than something was happening. Landline phones, which operated on their own, low voltage electricity have been mostly phased out.
"We now have this really remarkable cell phone technology, we have voice over internet, all these just wonderful technological things that make our communications so much easier, but they're fragile. Remarkably fragile. One of the things that came out of the Nuns/Tubbs Fire is that we had over 70 cell phone towers knocked out of operation at the very moment when we most needed to be able to communicate with people," Wallis said.
Lengthy power shutoffs during high fire danger could leave many cell phones, and the towers connecting them discharged. But even when everything is working, there are gaps.
With permission from the FCC and FEMA, a test of one of the alert systems---called WEA...was held last winter in Oakmont.
"We found that only about 60 percent of the participants actually received the WEA. And this was when they knew it was coming and we set everything up, Wallis said.
WEA allows short texts to go out to every phone in a given area. It's different from SoCo Alert, which can send longer, more precise information, but only to those who have signed up. It's also slower. But Wallis says even WEA, which unlike SoCo alert local officials don't have full control over, is imperfect.
"In theory, everyone within range of that cell phone tower will receive that message. In practice however, what we found is that for a variety of reasons, some cell phones will not receive that message," Wallis said.
Dead zones, discharged batteries, and people disregarding messages from an unfamiliar source. That's all doubly true with SoCo Alert which sends alerts as ordinary texts.
"Something as simple as somebody put their do-not-disturb on their cell phone, or they have an older cell phone that doesn't have a software update, the system won't work or it could be that they happen to be in a cell shadow when it happens, Wallis said.
That's not to mention tourists or those reluctant to opt-in.
Despite active publicity campaigns, Wallis said fewer than 30 percent of county residents have signed up. But he says, about three times that are on the list anyway, as officials added in numbers gathered in utility databases and other sources. When alerts do go out, they don't always go through. Do-not-disturb settings are one reason, but incessant spam, spoof and telemarketing calls and texts are an even bigger impediment.
That's part of the reason high-low sirens have been added to many law enforcement vehicles. It's also why Santa Rosa is giving out weather radios...redundancy. But they also won't work if the power is off and batteries dead.
"If there was a magic button, that I could press and make 100% of the people get the message, definitely, I will hit that button, but that button, as of yet, does not exist," Wallis said.
Nevertheless, Wallis said the county is more prepared than ever. "I'm feeling much more confident going into this fire season than I did previous fire seasons. We have tools, we have a process, we have information sources that we didn't have in previous fire seasons. The alert and warning will go out. I may not get to 100 percent, but I'm sure going to get as close as I can to it."
Months after losing his home, Gary Liess is philosophical about all the loss.
"I'm not looking at it, oh, I lost my house, I'm looking at it I am grateful to have lived a great portion of my life in this tremendous environment. This is awesome. For me. So, yeah, OK, it's over, I get it. On to the next thing, y'know, so, I get to have another adventure," Liess said.
He and his wife are thinking of relocating to Hawaii.
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