Before the flames appeared, Sandie Freeman thought the sky above her Redding home looked especially beautiful.
The evening was golden hued and still; pretty enough that she took a picture. Minutes later, a light wind picked up and leaves from her oak tree began falling like rain, she said.
It was the only warning she received that something was amiss.
The breeze turned into heavy gusts, then a roar that sounded “like a locomotive in your front yard,” she said. The Carr Fire shot up behind the house across the street, leaving her and her husband mere minutes to grab their dogs and make a dash for the road, only to find a line of cars stuck in a slow-motion crawl to safety.
A family of deer with three fawns came up to her car bumper. A long-time animal rescuer, she tried to think of a way to save them. But she didn’t know if she was even going to save herself.
“I honestly thought the fire was going to come up over us,” she said.
Before the Carr Fire gutted the western edge of Redding, causing eight deaths and leveling more than a thousand homes, local emergency services in the Northern California region sent out 59 “Code Red” evacuation warnings to various areas, including at least three aimed at pinging 31,979 nearby cell phones with urgent alerts, according to the Shasta Area Safety Communications Agency.
Some of those critical messages missed people living in the Redding neighborhoods hit first as fire blew across the Sacramento River on July 26 — a fatal lack of effective communication that is disturbingly common during California disasters.
While multiple systems exist for governments to warn people in urgent times — including broadcast TV, radio and internet messages — none is instantaneous and all are hit-or-miss in whom they reach and when they reach them. It is a reality at odds with what many people expect during a disaster.
“There is a huge gap between what the public thinks the government is going to provide in terms of warnings and notifications, and what the government is capable of providing,” said Dianna Bryant, director of the Institute for Rural Emergency Management at the University of Central Missouri.
This is especially true of cell phone alerts that appear like text messages. These Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) are increasingly one of the most common methods of warning those in danger, but they can be unreliable, according to researchers and emergency professionals.
Technological barriers mean wireless carriers can’t always get them to the right audience, and emergency communicators may lack standardized training and protocols on how to use them. There is also a lack of testing, leaving officials to guess how quickly and effectively the messages can be distributed.
In multiple instances in recent California disasters, including the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties last year and mudslides near Santa Barbara earlier this year, some warnings didn’t arrive in time to be useful, or didn’t arrive at all.
“Right now we are letting down Californians because we have a patchwork of emergency alert systems,” said state senator Mike McGuire, who represents a Northern California district spanning from Sonoma to the Oregon border. His territory in recent years has been devastated by dozens of wildfires and currently is under siege from the Mendocino Complex fires, the largest wildfire in state history.
“This is simply unacceptable,” McGuire said. “This state has been caught flat-footed. The era of mega-wildland fires is here, and we have to make sure residents are prepared to keep themselves safe.”
On Harlan Drive in Redding, hit hard by the Carr Fire, many residents interviewed said their first inkling of trouble was the sight of flames on a nearby hill and frantic knocks on front doors from neighbors and police. Only one resident said she received a text alert, which arrived after fire had already reached the area.
Steve and Sandy Harp, who live on the east end of Harlan at the far end of the street from where the fire crossed the river into the city, care for an adult daughter who is in a vegetative state after a fight with anorexia. Steve Harp said they received no alerts and didn’t know there was danger until he went outside to find the street jammed with cars of neighbors trying to escape.
“Did you get a mandatory evacuation?” he began asking. No, but it’s not worth it to wait, his neighbors said.
Minutes later, with flames visible and the power out, the couple grabbed diapers and medications from the dark rooms of their ranch home before putting their daughter in their van without time to buckle her in, he said.
A hundred yards down Harlan from the Harps, Mike Horan’s emergency alert was the sound of a helicopter above his house. He came out to his front yard and within the time for a “what’s happening” conversation with his neighbor, saw flames tear over a nearby hill. He ran inside for the keys to his pickup and left with nothing, he said.
Almost directly across from the burning ridge, Sandy and Tony Trujillo were watching fire coverage on the television but said nothing in the broadcast mentioned their own danger and no message reached her phone. A police officer “came running” to their door, yelling, “‘You have to evacuate now. Now,’” said Sandy Trujillo. She and her husband grabbed some clothing and they fled.
By then, the two-lane street was at a near standstill from traffic, and the 140-mile-per-hour winds of the fire engulfed Sandy Trujillo in her just-bought Kia Stinger. She lost sight of her husband in his truck as trash bins swirled through the air, chimneys were ripped off houses and chunks of burning embers thudded onto her windshield. She thought they were going to die, but eventually they made it off the street and into the flat areas where the fire had not reached.
“There was no order (to evacuate) or anything,” said Ashley Crumb, who escaped from a cul-de-sac off Harlan with her two daughters before her house was destroyed. “It was just here.”
The human factor
Wireless Emergency Alerts are administered nationally by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with local governments signing up to take part. It’s not the same system that does reverse 911 calls, which requires individuals to opt in to receive alerts. The WEA system is meant to blanket cell phones in a given area with texts.
WEA carries the expectation that those creating the messages know how and when to use them. But McGuire and others said uniform training may be lacking across the state. It’s also a problem across the country.
“Awareness and understanding of how WEA works is still generally low,” said Elizabeth Petrun Sayers, a social scientist with the RAND Corp. who studies emergency communications. She pointed out that WEA missives can be only 90 characters long, and pushing people to quick action in a short sentence requires understanding what messages work in an emergency.
The WEA system also is not quick enough when minutes matter, experts said — another training factor that may lead some agencies to wait too long before issuing them. After a message is created locally, it’s sent to a FEMA processing center in Virginia for verification. From there, it’s distributed to wireless service providers. They in turn have to transmit it back to the relevant cell towers and satellites.
The process can take somewhere between 10 and 12 minutes, and sometimes longer, said Sayers and others. But few tests have been done on the system, making it hard to know how long messages can take under different circumstances and what prevents them from being delivered in some cases.
“The exact timing of this whole process is not well known,” Sayers said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security also recommends regular drilling on the system and creating a “decision tree for originating an alert, the specific approvers who authorize the alert, and time considerations or maximums for completing the process relative to the anticipation, onset, or conclusion of” an emergency. Places with small law enforcement departments, many already stretched thin by budget cuts, may not have the resources or time for ongoing training on a system that is rarely used, and communication duties can be shared among a variety of people with other responsibilities.
In Redding, Sheriff Tom Bosenko, who also oversees the county’s Office of Emergency Services, said his department conducts general annual emergency trainings, but no set person on his staff handles evacuation orders. He said the designated person can change day to day in a critical situation such as a fire, or even minute to minute.
“It could be, ‘tag, you’re it’ today,” Bosenko said.
Bosenko said the Carr Fire was unpredictable and fast moving, leaving emergency responders little time to issue evacuation orders — regardless of what method was used. Bosenko said his agency relies on Cal Fire to help determine the timing of evacuations.
Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean said that if the fire had behaved in a predictable fashion, evacuations would have been more orderly. Instead, he said, the fire exploded and took everyone by surprise.
“Everything just happened so quickly,” he said. “And I’m not trying to gloss over this. I’ve seen one other time (in 21 years as a firefighter) when there was a fire tornado like this. ... It definitely roared through there with a vengeance.”
Despite the ferocity of the fire, the lack of advance notice has left some residents frustrated.
Donald Kewley, a family friend of Melody Bledsoe’s, who died in the fire with her two grandchildren, said he believed evacuation orders could have been given sooner when it became clear the fire was moving toward the city limits. He said he watched the fire approach the river for hours from the roof of his house a few miles from the Bledsoe property before it jumped across, but he never received an alert of any type. He decided to leave when the smoke got so bad a baby woodpecker fell out of the sky at his feet.
“By six o’clock (when the fire was close), the fact that anyone was out there was just not fair,” Kewley said.
Freeman, who lives three houses down from the Bledsoe home and up the hill from Harlan Drive, said she also didn’t receive an alert and thinks she should have. She thinks authorities may have been tentative about issuing warnings. Earlier in the day, an erroneous evacuation order had been sent out, she said. She believes there may have been a hesitancy to make another mistake.
“I think they really waited too long because they were afraid of making a bad call,” Freeman said.
Wireless Emergency Alerts also are hampered by outdated technology. Not all wireless carriers can send them, and not all phones are set to receive them.
In 2016, the Federal Communications Commission adopted new rules meant to upgrade the system by allowing for longer messages and requiring cell phone carriers to provide the infrastructure to support extra information like embedded links in the alert, among other changes. Some critics of the system said the industry has been too slow to make improvements.
“Some of it is there is no financial benefits,” said Bryant, the rural emergency management expert.
Wireless trade group Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association disputes carriers aren’t working to better WEAs.
“The wireless industry works hard to continuously enhance this proven life-saving tool, most recently supporting the ability to embed links to public safety websites,” Matt Gerst, a regulatory affairs executive with CTIA, said in a statement.
The FCC rules also require participating wireless providers to make the alerts more geographically targeted, giving emergency communicators the ability to send alerts to only those in an affected area. When the system first came online in 2012, alerts could only be delivered to entire counties, forcing emergency communicators to choose between sending broad messages to people who weren’t in danger and potentially causing unnecessary evacuations or fear — or not sending a message at all.
Last November, FCC rules narrowed the alerts to a geographic area that “best approximates” the zone in crisis. But that is still imprecise. The alerts are sent to specific cell towers, which then broadcast them out to any phone in a given radius, again likely including people not in immediate danger and potentially causing traffic jams, panic or leaving some residents too fatigued to react from unnecessary alerts.
McGuire said the geographic rules played a part in the 2017 Santa Rosa fires; emergency communicators were unaware of the then-new ability to broadcast to smaller areas and decided against sending one.
“There was concern based off of old data that if they were to deploy on the WEA system, the alert would go out countywide,” McGuire said.
Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said the location issue also caused problems in Santa Barbara in January when flash floods and mudslides followed wildfires. Jackson said wide-spread alerts sent to unaffected areas eventually made some residents stop heeding them altogether.
“We need to be serious about this because what happened in the debris flow in my district is people were tired of evacuating for no reason and they didn’t take it seriously,” she said.
Even with the narrower targeting now in effect, emergency communicators worry too many people still receive unnecessary alerts. By November 2019, the FCC will require wireless providers to improve location accuracy further, pinpointing phones within one-tenth of a mile of the emergency. Until then, the problems will persist.
“That’s one of the reasons that system is rarely used,” said James Divis, director of the Shasta Area Safety Communications Agency, which sends out alerts in that county. “No matter what the message, people hear ‘evacuate’ and react, which sometimes compounds the issue when it’s going out in a 360-degree circle for a mile or more.”
Both McGuire and Jackson have legislation pending that would address problems with emergency communications in California. Gov. Jerry Brown said last week he would consider fixes to the system.
Jackson’s bill would end the requirement that consumers opt-in to reverse 911 calls, allowing those to be sent out to all targeted cell phones.
McGuire’s bill would increase training around alerts and push them out over more mediums, including television, radio and eventually online platforms like social media.
Legislation is also moving forward on the federal level, prompted by an accidental and false warning of an incoming missile in Hawaii in January, that would put stricter training and protocols in place for FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, which includes the WEA system.
With California’s fire season expected to exceed 200 days this year, both Jackson and McGuire said better state oversight of emergency communications is vital.
More than a million homes in California now are in “very high fire hazard severity” zones and another 3.6 million are in residential borderlands where urban areas abut high-fuel forests and chaparral-covered scrub lands, putting one in three California homes in a fire-risk zone.
“It’s a real conundrum in terms of where people want to live and how to educate the public about the risk they face,” said Bryant, the rural emergency expert. “The public is not (always) going to be notified by the government. That is not a realistic option. ... The burden is on the individual, that you individually are going to have to have some access to information. You are going to have to seek out warnings.”