Why Sonoma County Decided Against Using Mass Alerts Ahead of Deadly Wildfires

A neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California destroyed by a wildfire.

A neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California destroyed by a wildfire. Nick Giblin / DroneBase via AP


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Officials feared using the system would do more harm than good.

Sonoma County officials decided against sending mass phone alerts to residents on Sunday night as the deadliest fires in California history began to threaten the region’s population centers, including the city of Santa Rosa.

It’s a decision sure to come under increased scrutiny as the tragic toll of the Wine Country blazes is tallied in the weeks and months to come.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Thursday, Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department personnel discussed using the county’s Wireless Emergency Alert system, but ultimately decided that, given the system’s limitations, an alert would have done more harm than good. Officials feared a mass alert would alarm the bulk of county residents unthreatened at the time by the fires and spur mass evacuations that would clog roads and hobble efforts to battle the blazes.

Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Coordinator Zachary Hamill and County Emergency Manager Christopher Helgren made the decision not to send the alert.

“If I had done the Wireless Emergency Alert, I would have been notifying Petaluma, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, Sonoma—all of the cities and unincorporated areas in the county,” Hamill said, according to the Chronicle. “And I didn’t need to do that. I needed to focus on who specifically needed help.”

The wireless alert system is managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is made to convey simple and direct information over large geographic areas. The system delivers messages written in 90 characters or less, which makes it difficult for officials to parse out different messages to separate resident groups in ways that are clear.

As the Chronicle pointed out, a Wireless Emergency Alert caused confusion during recent fires in Riverside County in Southern California. An “Evacuate Now” message went out to populations across unaffected neighboring jurisdictions, spurring police and fire departments in counties around Riverside to send clarifications over social media that the message was only intended for Riverside residents.

The Riverside lesson apparently wasn’t lost on Sonoma County officials. They issued warnings and evacuation orders this week through local loud-speaker systems, made robocalls and radio announcements, sent email and text messages, and knocked on doors.

More than 20 separate fires have raged for days in Northern California’s Wine Country, fanned by hot and dry hurricane-strength winds. This week’s blazes in Northern California have already killed at least 31 people, The Sacramento Bee reported Thursday evening, making this the deadliest wildfire week in state history.

In a grim Thursday morning press conference, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said that official death toll almost certainly will rise as emergency crews begin to enter cooling “hot zones” and set cadaver dogs to work rooting out remains.  

“We’re finding bodies that are nothing more than ashes and bones,” Giordano said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The fires so far have charred a swath of hill country the size of New York City, threatened to destroy cities across several counties, and caused untold amounts in damage.

The fires come at a time when the nation’s emergency resources are stretched as thin as gauze across far-flung disaster zones. The Washington Post reported Thursday that 85 percent of Federal Emergency Management Agency employees are now working on the ground to manage 22 officially declared disasters.    

John Tomasic is a journalist based in Seattle.

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