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Technologies To Warn The Public About Danger Are Helpful, But Not Perfect Yet


A record-breaking wildfire season on the West Coast has forced hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate their homes. In California, local governments rely on a hodgepodge of methods to tell residents to flee to safer ground. As KQED's Lily Jamali reports, better technology has helped get the message out, but it's far from perfect.

LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: Last month, when the LNU Lightning Complex fire made it to California's Yolo County near Sacramento, Sarah Johnson checked the Internet, social media, even a scanner to make sure that any wildfires remained far from the horse ranch where she lives and works.

SARAH JOHNSON: Probably one of the biggest mistakes I ever made was going to sleep that night. I figured if something was happening, they would let us know.

JAMALI: As the fire approached, a phone call came in - not from Yolo County's mass alert system, but from someone who boards a horse at the ranch. Johnson and others scrambled to round them up. It was time to go.

JOHNSON: And I remember at one point I just had to catch myself 'cause it's like, you want to ugly cry (laughter) but, like, you need to keep moving to get these horses out of the area.

JAMALI: It turns out county officials had sent mass alert phone calls to evacuate, but a year-old state law aimed at blocking robocalls meant that every single one of those calls got blocked. The problems didn't stop there. County officials say text messages which also went out didn't ping phones set to do not disturb, which many are in the middle of the night.

DAVE WINNACKER: Legacy systems like Reverse 911 that rely on landlines are becoming less and less relevant.

JAMALI: Chief Dave Winnacker of the Bay Area's Moraga-Orinda Fire District says smartphones have complicated existing systems, like Reverse 911, that can generate mass emergency calls to the public. But smartphones can also be a valuable tool in emergencies.

WINNACKER: Everyone has what used to be a supercomputer in their pocket.

JAMALI: There's been innovation even in the middle of this horrific fire season by necessity. Take the CZU Lightning Complex fire near Santa Cruz, an area that wasn't expected to burn. This year, it did. Enter the techies. A startup called Zonehaven helped officials quickly map out evacuation zones and, critically, auto-push notifications across a bunch of platforms. Here's the CEO, Charlie Crocker.

CHARLIE CROCKER: Every three to four hours for a while, we were starting to communicate to the community that it was time for them to leave, and then we were able to communicate that using the maps and using Twitter and using Waze.

JAMALI: Not to mention the area's existing mass alert systems. While pushing that information out, people also had a site they could visit with information updated in real time.

CROCKER: Being able to sort out the wheat from the chaff is difficult. With Zonehaven, we are bringing an authoritative source that is connected directly to the agencies to the public.

JAMALI: But Zonehaven hasn't been adopted everywhere. In Butte County, where the Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018, killing 85 people, the fire moved too fast for officials to use their emergency notification app. As fire approached again last week, Sheriff Kory Honea urged people to sign up for it. But, he said...

KORY HONEA: We have seen far too often in this county people fail to abide by those orders, and tragic consequences were the result.

JAMALI: Making things worse, when fire danger is high, California's utilities now have permission to shut down parts of the grid to prevent their lines from sparking more fires. No power, no technology. The fallback - old approaches, like sirens and knocking on doors.

For NPR News, I'm Lily Jamali. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lily Jamali (KQED)