The Sonoma ridgeline was a sunrise of flame as Sgt. Brandon Cutting led deputies up country roads to pound on doors, hollering “Sheriff’s Office!”
Thirty minutes later, with Cutting huffing from exertion and choking in thick smoke, the evacuation of Redwood Hill was still playing out one door at a time. He followed the sound of shouts to an officer struggling to carry a disabled woman. Her house was on fire. Her shoe on the ground. The night around them was orange in every direction.
It was 11 on a Sunday night, the beginning of what would be the most destructive fire siege in California history. Frantic rescues were taking place across wine country as heavy winds ripped down power lines and the dry hills lit up in flames. Modern technology in the form of robocalls and digital alerts would not join the fight to roust sleeping residents for another half an hour.
When the warnings came, they were not received by many of those in the most peril.
Two months after the wine country fires, officials still debate whether more could have been done to give residents earlier warnings before the fires swept in, ultimately killing 44 people and destroying more than 10,000 homes.
The fires highlighted the inadequacies of the emergency warnings officials employed and have prompted a push for new safety protocols. Some of the same problems occurred two months later when the Thomas fire — the largest on record in California — swept through Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
In the end, the warnings that officials sent reached only a fraction of those in the fire’s path, and emergency agencies struggled to direct warnings to the correct geographic areas. The situation left officials frustrated and looking for answers.
“I can use my cellphone to order a pizza and it gets here,” said Rob Lewin, director of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management. “Why can’t I have that same system to save people’s lives?”
Although weather forecasters told fire departments across Northern California to prepare for incendiary conditions, decisions to broadcast evacuation orders did not take place until hours after the fires started and residents were already trapped. Those caught by surprise jumped into swimming pools or water tanks, or ran through vineyards.
Fires flanked tourists and residents alike in Napa from three sides, but Napa County relied on sending cellphone text messages to the small population that had the foresight to register in advance. It uses the same tool to announce parades and water main breaks.
Electronic logs show that not until the following afternoon did the county attempt to broaden its warnings to include some 53,000 landlines gleaned from AT&T — a message asking residents to refrain from dialing 911.
The effort made no allowance for the tourists who are the lifeblood of the Napa economy. Hotel staff at a luxury golf resort pulled guests from their rooms in pajamas even as highway patrol medevac teams plucked trapped residents off the ridge above by helicopter. The deputies attempting to knock on doors couldn’t even get up the fire-blocked road.
Sonoma County sent text messages and robocalls, but records obtained under the California Public Records Act show only 50 percent of the numbers on its call list worked. An analysis of the calls shows the county tried to reach less than a tenth of those living in the targeted warning area. Fewer than a third of that one-tenth would pick up the phone.
Every county had the capacity for alerts carried on a federal system that would loudly buzz every cellphone within range of a working tower — by sending the messages either on their own or through the state. Of the eight counties hit by 14 fires that night, only Lake County employed the system. A neighboring county that had no fire, Marin, used the system to tell fire evacuees where shelters were open.
In Sonoma, where Cutting was stationed that night, emergency managers said they decided against the federal wireless warning system. County emergency manager Chris Helgren said he was worried the notoriously imprecise system would trigger a countywide panic. Mass evacuations on the single highway through town would have made the emergency even more dire. In the end, dozens died in Sonoma as the Tubbs fire swept from the mountain vale of Calistoga into a suburb of Santa Rosa.