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Officials Assess Response To Camp Fire In Northern California


It's common after disasters for officials to say this must never happen again. After the Camp Fire in Northern California left at least 85 people dead, nobody can promise any such thing. Wildfires are part of nature and are growing more frequent. The real question is how to adapt. Officials are asking how their emergency warning systems could work better. Here's Jeremy Siegel of member station KQED.

JEREMY SIEGEL, BYLINE: The Camp Fire ignited around 6:30 in the morning in a rural part of Butte County. About an hour later, it was making its way toward the town of Paradise. For many residents of the area, that came as a surprise.

CHRISTINA HIXSON: There was no evacuation orders. There was nothing on the news. We had the news on. We just knew it was time to go.

SIEGEL: Christina Hixson could see the flames.

HIXSON: From where I lived, it came right over us. So it was coming that way. And then the lights went out, you know? So we knew it was time to go.

SIEGEL: Caroline Bolin is from the neighboring town of Magalia. She says she didn't receive an evacuation alert, either.

CAROLINE BOLIN: I never got any text or any information about there actually being a fire or where the fire was. The reason why I knew is because the sun was blood-red, and so was the sky.

KORY HONEA: This fire was outrunning us...

SIEGEL: Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea.

HONEA: ...In terms of our ability to notify people, get evacuations done before we even really understood we were in a race.

SIEGEL: Honea says his agency has never seen a fire of this speed or magnitude before. And that made the emergency response difficult.

HONEA: There are plans in place to conduct evacuations, generally staged evacuations based on zones that people live in. We utilized emergency mass notification system.

SIEGEL: The county used something called CodeRED for emergency alerts. It's an opt-in system, meaning you only receive evacuation alerts on your cell phone if you signed up for the service. Some people were notified, but others in evacuation zones were not. So when it became apparent that it was time to flee, many left at the same time. Sandra Peltola of Magalia says she was caught in gridlock traffic.

SANDRA PELTOLA: People acting crazy, you know, driving erratically and putting other people in danger. It got crazy. It really did.

SIEGEL: There is an alert system already in use in many California counties where notifications can be sent to everyone. It's called WEA, or Wireless Emergency Alert. And it's an Amber Alert-style message sent to all cell phones. Kelly Huston is the deputy director of crisis communications for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

KELLY HUSTON: We now have direct access to the public through these technologies. It's really trying to figure out, how do we do it in the most effective way without missing large populations who need to get an emergency alert?

SIEGEL: Missing large populations, for instance, if a cell tower goes down, or there's no service. In the aftermath of the Camp Fire, Butte County Sheriff Honea acknowledges they'll be looking to improve on their emergency alert procedures. But, he says, there's no system that's perfect.

HONEA: I don't want people to have the false sense of security or false belief that there is a perfect solution to every situation and that you can guarantee with 100 percent certainty that a - one particular system is going to work every time.

SIEGEL: Especially in a fire of that magnitude and for communities like Paradise with limited escape routes. Honea says that there will be a lot of lessons to learn from the blaze. But right now local leaders are dealing with immediate issues like finding work and homes for thousands of Camp Fire refugees. Figuring out how to do it better in the next fire may have to wait until the community is fully moving into recovery. For NPR News, I'm Jeremy Siegel in Chico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeremy Siegel