Roaring Northern California wildfires outrun emergency response tech
Surging California wildfires spread so quickly into some neighborhoods that emergency texts, phone calls, and tweets could not be sent to alert people of the approaching flames.
These unprecedented fires, fueled by dry vegetation after a wet winter and scorchingly hot summer and unrelenting “Diablo” winds, have so far killed 26, left nearly 300 missing, and are barely contained. “The winds are picking up again,” a Napa resident (who wished to be unnamed) told Mashable Wednesday night. “It’s apocalyptic.”
Local governments have emergency response alert systems set up to inform residents of evacuations, notably via text message, but the fires outpaced many of these systems.
“People were in bed, asleep at midnight, and these fires came down on these communities with no warning within minutes,” said state fire agency Chief Ken Pimlott told the Associated Press. “There was little time to notify anybody by any means.”
In Sonoma County, the place famous for its grape orchards and wineries, the Sheriffs alert residents of evacuation orders via text message. One issue is that residents have to sign up to receive these texts, which leave many people outside the system.
The other issue, however, is that these rapidly moving fires destroyed the alert system: Although the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department sent out thousands of warning texts Sunday night, the Sheriff’s Department told the Associated Press that 80 cell phone towers were knocked out by fire.
In many cases, then, the messages never reached their imperiled recipients.
Instead, it seems many folks evacuated on instinct. They smelled smoke, and in dire cases, saw flames approaching their homes.
This is not to say that Sonoma County didn’t appropriately react to the fires. They used Facebook and Twitter to alert residents, and Sheriff’s drove through neighborhoods blasting sirens and loudspeakers. Some officers even drove through flames.
These wildfires simply moved too fast, which will give emergency responders, like those in Sonoma County, a lot to think about it: With wildfires, including extreme ones like the raging blazes this October, expected to become more common as the climate change, what sort of alerts systems can withstand the flames—if any.