A decision by two Sonoma County emergency officials not to send a regional mass alert to cellphones about what would turn out to be two swiftly moving wildfires in Santa Rosa and Glen Ellen appears to be a fateful one, though they are continuing to defend it. As the Chronicle reports, Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Coordinator Zachary Hamill and county Emergency Manager Christopher Helgren made the call, deciding that sending the alert would likely cause panic in areas far from the fires that could lead to traffic backups that would inhibit the evacuation.
"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 tells the Chron. "And I didn’t need to do that, I needed to focus on who specifically needed [to be evacuated]."
The unprecedented speed of the fire is certainly to blame for much of the way the evacuation was executed. Winds of 50 to 70 miles per hour at the tops of ridges between Sonoma and Napa counties fed flames and pushed them into the valleys below.
The Chronicle piece details the various other technologies that could have been employed, based both on land lines (which require households to sign up) and cellphones (which also require signups in some cases). But anything cell-related might have been useless anyway as the firestorm that the Tubbs Fire became knocked out cell service in the area.
Nonetheless it seems like the abundance of caution by Sonoma County authorities may have cost lives in the end, and many survivors report escaping within minutes of the flames thanks to neighbors yelling or knocking on their doors.
At 10:51 p.m. Sunday, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office sent out what's called a Nixle alert, shown here in screenshot, which is a private service that residents must opt in for to receive alerts from local agencies. The alert said that "multiple fires are reported" and "Local fire departments are on the scene and we will notify you if any evacuations are called for. The strong winds are making these fires difficult." Further, the message told residents not to call 911 unless they saw actual flames, because "Dispatchers are being overwhelmed by 911 calls on reports of smoke smell."
At present, 14 people are confirmed dead in Sonoma County, as the Washington Post reports, and the total death toll from all the Northern California fires now stands at 26 topping the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm, which killed 25.