Skip to main content

Fixing California’s Wildfire Alert Failures Requires a New Way of Thinking, of Taking Action, of Shouldering Personal Responsibility To Save Lives

 California's 2020 wildfire report likely will include scores of deaths before the last of the fires adds its acreage and fatality numbers to the total.

Since 2017, the death toll from wildfires is above 150, and the state’s historical fire season still has weeks to go as the calendar turns to Fall.


CHORE insists that  many – maybe most – of those deaths could have been avoided if warnings had been easily accessible by the victims. Numerous media reports beginning with the Tubbs Fire in 2017 carried accounts of survivors’ angry assertions they received no warning.


“Received” is the action word in that sentence. It’s not enough to simply transmit warnings; they must be received to be effective.


Too many officials – from warning protocol planners at the State level to county sheriffs – are not committed to ensuring the public receives their alerts. If they were so committed, survivors would not complain of warning failures.


A New Way of Thinking


And that’s where a mindset shift is desperately needed. We asked in our most recent post here at CHORE: At What Point Do We Begin Holding Officials Responsible for Wildfire Deaths when They Clearly Fail To Learn from Previous Warning Failures?


Officials must be committed to implementing systems that do not fail! They must focus on systems that ensure warnings are received and acted upon by people in peril. 


Public radio station KQED of San Francisco carried one of the many media reports on wildfire warning failures, this one in Santa Cruz County:


Some residents who barely escaped the latest fast-moving fires say they need a seamless system that crosses county lines and gives clear, useful information about what is happening. They want evacuation maps to accompany written descriptions posted on social media to make it easier to see what areas are in danger, and they want all counties, regardless of size and resources, to give accurate and timely alerts. Some people did not get warnings; others say they went out too late.”


CHORE has been advocating just that for years – a seamless system that crosses county lines. That system is called AM Radio, and it’s hiding in plain sight.


Commitment to Success


Radio is a mass medium that communicates to mass audiences, even those living beyond cell phone coverage. Radio doesn’t require listeners to sign up for a service, as do some systems that rely on cell phone technology. Radio transmitters rarely burn down, as is common with cell phone networks.


All radio needs to be an effective wildfire warning system is a commitment by officials to include radio in their schemes to achieve success in communicating alerts. 


That commitment is obviously lacking today. Too many officials fail to accept personal responsibility for ensuring messages are transmitted in ways that have a high likelihood of being received.


Officials can’t think their job is done when they’ve hit the button to transmit their Wireless Emergency Alerts and text messages over cell phone networks. 


Those networks fail. People don't turn on their phones. Their batteries are dead. Whatever, those networks fail to deliver messages that must be received.

Officials must implement virtually fail-safe AM radio as a medium that “crosses county lines” and avoids failure-prone mobile phone networks. See our earlier CHORE posts that describe how such a system could work. Also, go to our Wildfire Crisis website, which no longer is active but is still reachable via The Internet Archive's Wayback Machine (be patient as it slowly loads).


The most important change of all would be for officials to take personal responsibility to do whatever it takes to ensure success of their wildfire warnings.


Success will be achieved only when populations endangered by wildfires actually receive those warnings. 


Until then, the only word that accurately describes their efforts is failure.


Popular posts from this blog

At What Point Do We Begin Holding Officials Responsible for Wildfire Deaths when They Clearly Fail To Learn from Previous Warning Failures?

 Northern California wildfires raged on during the September 12-13 weekend, and newspapers duly reported on more warning failures: San Francisco Chronicle: “Wildfire warning systems by text, email, cell phone alert or reverse 911 call can’t always reach everyone in remote areas where coverage isn’t available, or when power or service cuts off. And sometimes, as happened in this season’s lightning-sparked blazes, the system can’t keep up with the speed and unpredictability of wildfires. Officials with Cal Fire confirmed that there was no evacuation warning for Last Chance, and that the evacuation order came just after 10 p.m. Sheriff’s deputies had no time to go door to door.” Let that last bit sink in: “Sheriff’s deputies had no time to go door to door. ” Is that really  the alert protocol when cell phone notifications fail? Deputies go door to door? San Francisco Chronicle: As soon as Cal Fire sent word of the imminent danger, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea sent out an evacuation war

Once a Hurricane, Tropical Depression Cosme Provides Incentive to Stock Up on Batteries

CHORE has really let it slide this summer. We’re average only one post a month during hurricane season, a tipoff we’ve pretty much moved on and beyond the communications failures during and after Earthquake Sunday. Trouble is, so has everyone else, and there’s been virtually zero follow-up by the news media in recent months on how or whether October’s communications deficiencies have been corrected. We may not have the answers to all the questions that have been posted here at CHORE until the next emergency, which is not a comforting feeling. If all the radio and TV stations stay on the air during the next major power outage, we’ll know the stations’ staffs have done a responsible job in fixing their problems. If they go to dead air, we’ll be the losers then and there. COSME Comes Calling Tropical Depression Cosme, a one-day hurricane earlier this week, has winds estimated at 30 knots this afternoon that could strengthen to minimal tropical storm intensity as it approaches the

On Second Anniversary of California’s Camp Fire, a Look-Back on Lessons Learned – and Lost – in another Emergency. NorCal Fire Warning Failures Continue, so Let’s See What We Learned in 1982 during Hawaii’s Hurricane Iwa

California’s deadliest wildfire tore through the town of Paradise two years ago on November 8. The Camp Fire killed 85 people and left thousands displaced and grieving for their paradise, lost in the forests of Northern California. I’ve been campaigning here at CHORE for improved wildfire alerts since even before that fire’s well-documented failures (archived site loads slowly), and I’ve generally avoided using the “I” word in these posts. This campaign isn’t about attracting attention to myself.    But – I  do  have the kind of hands-on emergency communications experience that appears lacking in far too many California officials charged with emergency response.  My September 21 post strongly hinted at what hands-on proactivity looks like in calling for “a new way of thinking, of taking action, of shouldering personal responsibility to save lives.”  Learned Lessons Lost Hurricane Iwa struck Hawaii in November 1982 and quickly forced me and the rest of Hawaiian Electric Company’s cor