California Wildfires Reveal Alert System Shortcomings

At a news conference in Shasta County on Saturday, Gov. Jerry Brown vowed to help the legislature improve the state's emergency alert system.

by Angela Hart, The Sacramento Bee / August 7, 2018
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(TNS) — California’s intensifying wildfires, which have killed at least 50 people since October, have sparked forceful calls by state lawmakers to improve emergency alert systems that the public relies on to be notified of danger during disasters.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Saturday said he would consider legislation this year to do so.

“I think we do need the best alert system we can get, and that’s what I would help the Legislature achieve,” Brown said at a news conference in fire-ravaged Shasta County. “There’s a lot of things we can do, and we can always do more ... given the rising threats on the changing of the weather, the climate.

“We’re going to have to do more,” he added, after touring communities near Redding destroyed by the Carr Fire – the sixth most destructive in California history. On Saturday, he formally requested from President Donald Trump a so-called Presidential Major Disaster Declaration that would unlock federal assistance for residents impacted by the fires. Emergency assistance would include financial help, crisis counseling, legal services, job assistance, food aid and more.

Brown said he expects Trump to help California.

“The president has been pretty good about helping us out in disasters, so I’m hopeful,” Brown said.

He renewed his warning of worsening wildfire threats in the years ahead. Earlier this week, Brown said the wildfires will cost the state heavily.

“We gotta be ready,” Brown said. “We gotta re-examine the way we manage our forests, build our houses – where we build them, how we build them, and how much we invest in our fire protection services.

“We got a lot to do.”

Brown said he would “be glad to look at” legislation from state Sens. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, to create a statewide uniform alert system requiring counties to register all residents. Under such a plan, which would utilize the federal Wireless Emergency Alerts system, they’d have to opt out rather than sign up voluntarily.

There is no standardized, statewide system for how people are notified of fast-approaching wildfires or looming danger from other disasters, such as floods or earthquakes.

Brown said, however, that “People also have to rely on themselves. ... I think the local police and fire have done a hell of a job, and neighbors have a role because we’re not all just dependent on government. We’re free American citizens.”

As the deadly Carr Fire has begun to retreat in recent days, there are increasing reports of residents who were forced to flee their homes in Shasta County saying they feel they were not given enough time to evacuate. In some cases, people said they received no notification. Others were alerted of the firestorm that overran the Sacramento River on July 26 by friends or neighbors.

There wasn’t enough time for 70-year-old Melody Bledsoe and her two great-grandchildren, ages 4 and 5, to get out. Family members said they died not knowing there was an evacuation order in place.

Brown declined to discuss failures in California’s alert systems, instead saying he preferred to discuss ways to improve them.

“You’re assuming something went wrong,” Brown said. “Life has its tragedies. We have fires, we have floods, we have mudslides and we have many other things — we just had a fire tornado.”

But, he said, “I think that we want to construct the best systems of alert that we can, and where it breaks down, we’ll do better. ... Where you can identify errors, we’ll correct them.”

McGuire, who represents Sonoma and Lake counties in the Legislature – areas that have been devastated by wildfires such as the Mendocino Complex fires currently surrounding Clear Lake and last year’s Tubbs Fire that decimated portions of Santa Rosa – said he fears more people will die if the state doesn’t adopt a uniform alert system.

“Lives are on the line,” McGuire said in an interview Saturday. “The reason we introduced this bill is because too many of our neighbors passed away last year because they did not receive a timely emergency alert.”

In the North Bay fires alone, 42 people were killed.

“In Sonoma County, emergency alerts never made it to residents that were in harm’s way. In Santa Barbara, emergency alerts were deployed when the mudslides were actually taking place,” McGuire said. “I’m not throwing stones here, but it’s clear we have significant shortcomings in our emergency alert system and as a result, the public is being put in harm’s way.”

The bill, Senate Bill 833, would require counties to automatically sign up residents for a uniform cell phone alert system. It would also fund a standardized system equipped to push out alerts on all forms of media – radio, television, electronic highway billboards and landlines. County emergency managers would be required to undergo annual training on the latest alert technology.

The bill cleared the Senate in May and is currently before the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which returns to work on Monday with the rest of the Legislature.

On Saturday, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, backed the idea.

“A lot of homes don’t have landlines anymore,” Dahle said. “I want to support this. Putting a fee onto everybody would help create a system that works.”

Brown is also pushing legislation to overhaul the 911 system. He advocated Saturday for his proposal to create a new flat fee on all cell phones of 34 cents per line while questioning other proposals.

“Everything standardized, centralized? We are a very diverse state. We have over 400 cities. We have 58 counties. We have countless fire districts and we have our 911 system that we’re seeking to upgrade,” Brown said.

The 17 wildfires burning across California have torched more than 450,000 acres in the last three weeks. More than 40,000 remain evacuated from their homes. Nearly 17,000 homes are under threat and 14,000 firefighters are battling the blazes, Cal Fire reported Saturday morning.

©2018 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.