Wildfire Coverage Controversies Rage On

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Nearly a year after one of the nation’s worst wildfires in a century swept through Paradise, California, emergency management officials are under fire for inadequate disaster and evacuation planning. According to The Sacramento Bee, California’s auditor, Elaine Howle, criticized disaster planning in Butte, Sonoma and Ventura counties for not taking advantage of cell phone technology for proper emergency alerts. 

A report released by Howle stated, “Despite having access to technology that could reach all cell phones in their evacuation zones, Butte and Sonoma did not send alerts using that technology. 

Instead, both counties sent messages through notification systems that reach landlines and reach a person’s cell phone only if that person has pre-registered to receive emergency alerts from the county.”

Butte County officials pushed back against Howle’s claims stating that the failure of cell towers and other infrastructure overwhelmed the communication system and crippled efforts to notify residents.

As reported by The Sacramento Bee, records obtained from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) noted that seventeen cell towers burned on the first day of the wildfires and a total of 66 cell towers were damaged or out of service during the first two weeks of the fire. Surviving towers were overloaded by call traffic causing phones to go silent or calls to be dropped.

Burning thousands of homes and claiming the highest death toll in California history, the November 2018 Camp Fire killed 85 people. “It is important to understand the magnitude and speed of the Camp Fire, a fire so devastating and fast that no plan could adequately address it,” wrote Sheriff Kory Honea and Chief Administrative Officer Shari McCracken in a lengthy response to the auditor. “No jurisdiction in California has sufficient resources for a catastrophic and large scale disaster like the Camp Fire.”

A 2018 Bay Area News Group analysis showed the extent of the warning system failure. “The system failed. Technology, the thing I trust most, failed,” said Lisa Parr, an accountant who had signed up to get the county’s emergency alerts but never received one. Hard at work on her computer and phone that fateful morning, she was unaware of approaching flames and escaped with just moments to spare. “The system that was supposed to help save us — it didn’t.”

Santa Clara University School of Law professor and former CPUC Commissioner Catherine Sandoval said, “This has been a growing issue with emergency communications — fostered by transition to more and more people using cell phones and other systems that are reliant on fiber,” said Sandoval. “That’s the problem with big fires: The infrastructure burns. As you lose both power and telephones, that creates failure.”

“What you end up with is a situation that takes us back to the 1940s,” she said, “where heroic responders drive up and down streets, taking their lives into their hands, using bullhorns.”

December 11, 2019

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