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In California, Many Wonder Why There Were No Mass Evacuation Alerts For Wildfires


The California wildfires have now killed at least 41 people. Residents of the northern counties burnt by the fires are asking why there weren't mass alerts telling them to evacuate when the blazes started quickly spreading last Sunday night. Reporting from Santa Rosa, here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Howling winds rattling her windows made it difficult for 46-year-old Tracey Cooper to fall asleep last Sunday night. Then, a couple of hours after drifting off, she got a text from a friend in another part of town.

TRACEY COOPER: It woke me up. That was about 1:30. And I went outside and kind of yelled. My neighbors were coming outside, too.

SCHAPER: She recalls looking up at the sky.

COOPER: I could see red over the hill. I got ashes in my eyes, and I couldn't see. The electricity suddenly went out. And we just knew that we couldn't stay.

SCHAPER: Cooper woke up her two kids. They grabbed laptops, phones, a few pictures and the dog and quickly left.

COOPER: There were no sirens, no warning at all. A lot of people were honking and trying to wake people up. And it was just complete crazy mayhem.

SCHAPER: Less than two hours after escaping, Tracey Cooper got a text from a neighbor saying her entire subdivision had burned to the ground. Cooper is standing in front of the mound of white and gray ashes that used to be her home. It is littered with scorched metal and shattered roof tiles. And she wonders about those in her Santa Rosa neighborhood who did not happen to wake up.

COOPER: I don't know. I don't know. We didn't have any word. I don't know.

ROB GIORDANO: So what happens is, we have two systems we use at the sheriff's office, one called SoCoAlert and one called Nixle.

SCHAPER: Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano says four urgent messages went out on those systems in the first 25 minutes of the fires.

GIORDANO: But the problem is, if you're not signed up, you won't get it. If the cell tower's down, you won't get it. If the phone lines burn, you won't get it. This fire was incredibly fast.

SCHAPER: So fast that Sonoma County officers raced from home to home in some neighborhoods, as you can hear on this body cam video, as high winds rained burning embers down upon them.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sheriff's office - Sir, you got to go.

SCHAPER: Giordano says the county's emergency operations center could have sent out a countywide text alert to all residents' phones, but authorities worried that would cause a panic even in areas not threatened by fires. And he says roads and neighborhoods that were on fire were jammed already.

GIORDANO: Five-hundred-thousand residents here - they push that alert out to that, and we would have had people die because we did it wrong.

SCHAPER: But as searchers continue to find the remains of those who were not able to escape the fires in time, many area residents question why there isn't a fire warning system like Amber Alerts or tornado sirens. Giordano and other local and state authorities say there is already a review underway to look into what kinds of warning systems and new technologies might work better in the future. David Schaper, NPR News, Santa Rosa, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.