« Reveal

Warning System Down: California’s Deadliest Fires

2018-03-10 | 🔗

Wildfires raged across Northern California in October, burning through the state’s famed Napa and Sonoma wine regions. In all, more than 170 blazes ripped across an area the size of Maryland and Delaware combined. Scores awoke to flames at their doors, and 44 people were killed in the deadliest fire event in state history.

On this episode of Reveal, we team up with KQED to examine what led to delays in evacuations and why so many fire victims received no warnings at all. As wildfires grow more intense, are first responders keeping up?

Head over to revealnews.org for more of our reporting.

Follow us on Facebook at fb.com/ThisIsReveal and on Twitter @reveal.

And to see some of what you’re hearing, we’re also on Instagram @revealnews.

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Hey. It is your favorite host in all of pod custom. Now for the rest of the year, I'm gonna be asking you to join us by becoming a member of reveal reveal is all about going deep, pulling on threads telling stories that matter for more than three years now reveal has been fighting a lawsuit. That's been jeopardizing our very existence of restoring we, about an organization called planet aid. Our story raises serious questions about whether international aid was actually reaching the people. It was intended to help and what's more, our story was truthful and we stand by it. We believe it is our duty to fight attacks like this, but fighting a lawsuit comes at a huge costs, are legal fees alone totalled more than seven million dollars? Luckily, we have pro bono legal support to help our in house counsel, but it still takes significant resources, resources that should be used to do more public service journalists. This kind of investigative
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on the night of Sunday October, the northern California hills are parched after a long summer, a hot dry these blowing a woman is enormous wine country caused nine one. Why we need fire engine that we needed a man here an hour ago. Thousands of people are in the path of this. Fine. Now why the drive out, because I would have died, I paid via how big, the buyer How should I know What about that? These would become the deadliest wildfires in California history. Forty four people for weeks, fires burned across a counties including nap famous for its opinions on the night, the fires,
cal fire. The state agency that responds to wildfires gets call after call all night. Emily was unbelievable. I mean that is really the sound. That I remember is just the phones did not stop blaming the calls to not stopped coming for how you two Chief ITALY, burly supervisors how fires regional command centre in nap about its basically her warm smells of costly, sweat to dispatchers answer the funds as fast as I can they can sold a giant map of northern California, pinned to the wall, dotted with magnets purple ones. Stand for medical units, yellow for bulldozers. All red ones for engines and big red arrows for fire. They deploy these resources using a system that originated in California, one called mutual aid, Roma runs out resources when they do they call their neighbouring county, Napa, county and ass for them to help
now by county, would ordinarily say sure, we'd love to come, help you and sends there's resources. That's the normal thing that happens, brewer, who believe the state Mutual aid system be able to handle whatever nature through at it, but like the floods in Houston and the hurricanes and floored Import Rico, climate change has changed gang making weather events more extreme across the country so well Emergency response is put their lives on the line of the system's prepared to handle disasters of this magnitude. That's what reporters LISA pick off it's working Louis Amerika, lots of cake. You, we d in San Francisco, wanted to find out, after listening to thousands of no one one cause and dispatch recordings and talking to dozens of first responders state officials in people who barely escape with their lives. They reconstruct what happened that night, the fires broken.
Teresa starts off in the hills above Sonoma counties, biggest city, Santa Rosa granting, Christina well sense. And October eighth puttering around their house. It's close to coffee shops and grocery stores, but from here all you see or tree tops and grassy hillside on Sundays. We hang out at home. You know I'm always working so I was probably doing, have work and watching for all whatever their in their early. Fifty she's, a mortgage adviser he's a lawyer. They have a two year old dog shit, Sunni Maximus, MAX. For short, live in a tight meant neighbourhood upon a hell, we're neighbors, take time to chat and, after years of work, remodeling the house finally felt fully theirs. It feels like you, know, you're just in this. We know serene setting so far away
our dream on that Sunday Christina stands in her new break kitchen. Looking out of the windows, it was a lot window than formal, and it was very warm. It was a warm day. Christina, doesn't think much of the wind but what she doesn't realise is that wind will soon bring fire to her doorstep. Inside the cow war room. There worried that something like that could happen. Suki takes us, there were, officials are already on standby fire fighters are ready to mobilise because the national, whether service, has issued a red flag warning the highest alert for fire danger then around seven. Thirty. In the evening, nine one one dispatchers get concerning call I'm counting attention a collar router
Forgot power line working her head, but the address of the man tells the dispatcher that wins not the power line into a tree, but there are a lot of hard work. I fired power lines for its part. Ok, look better than the dispatcher says. Some one is on. The way then makes this a top priority should consult a computer screen to send the nearest engine out to respond, but the wind keeps picking up. About twenty minutes. Later, a woman dials nine one one to report transformer blow miles away, one numbing alarm and like it was a big fire work that went on her ear murmur of abiding by the way they know what's happening here,
is that high winds are knocking down power lines. These send out sparks starting little fires, then as well Let's go down. The electricity needs to go somewhere, so it gets redistributed. This overloads other lines, creating power, searches, transformers, explode, take and down more of the electrical ground. As cow fire gets these reports, they contact p d, any the local utility company and together they have the ability to do a few things. The utility can send out lineman to deal with individual incidents or shut down power remotely or a combination of both higher power on that night, cow fire and p go by procedure dealing with these incidents, one by one rely
hang on linemen. They can't keep up. This is when you can first hear things getting out of control. It's like a game of workable, fires map is getting crowded their running out people to send, even as new fires break out tractor point worked out by or tolerate got no more repressive, kept them shoot anybody with one to send to put out all these small fires to blazes Exe load almost simultaneously about thirty miles apart in the forest, Hell of Sonoma County gusts of wind are sweeping up burning tree branches and debris and hurling these ember smiles through the air. The blaze starts, jumping from one mountain peak to another, dragging valleys racing through Napa vineyards and devouring homes across both counties and its rushing toward the city of Santa Rosa Home to a hundred and
five thousand people and for fire fighters is becoming clear. These fires there facing are of a different order, tell fire. Captain Jeff Home is in the middle of all of this he's, like the voice of God to his troops all night long, firefighters hear him radio, taking their calls and coordinating their response from Macao Fire WAR, Room Hoag sends out a reminder: crackling over the radio public safety for the public safety, for the rescuer. Do what you can what that means is putting out fires, isn't the priority anymore for fire fighters, Singular focus is saving human lives, including their own. At ten thirty cow fire starts.
Falling local law enforcement agencies and Napa and Sonoma to initiate evacuations in this game of telephone. You can hear a lot go wrong. I data revert line one one down, Ok? Ok, I need it for the caliph, though their area mandatory evacuation, this cow fire employee is asking a nap operator for Review nine one one, that's an accusation alert that can target specific neighborhoods warning people. Fire is approaching. It calls whom funds, but only about half of Amerika have landlines these days. You all its Calvary her? What your question they river now and when are you see me mixed or I need you guys to send out my one wine. So we can tell them to evacuate programme, does not unfair, not familiar with whatever fun. When one is I'm sorry,
there's another one of those places where you can hear the system breaking down. The operator doesn't even know what cow virus talking about. That's actually cause each county in California. There are fifty eight uses, different technologies with different names to alert but to catch fire, its reverse nine, when one to Napa it's called unexciting, going out to the public We need to go to all their found landline, and everything with men are really. I mean an evaluation ya in this call, how fires requests and evacuation order, but it still takes an hour before. Enforcement officials and Napa issue text alert to the public. They won't
all people on their landlines until the next day over the course of the night. Delay and confusion happen again and again right and it didn't just happen and Napa back at the home of Christina and Gregg Wilson. The phone rings around ten at night, but it's not Sonoma County officials calling you. I got a phone call around ten o clock from one of my friends who lives about, three miles away and she's. Like you know, I cease fire in the distance and looks like it's coming really close. They look. Out the window and can see a faint glow of fire Christina Husband, Gregg, chats with the neighbours and prepares to leave, just in case they, two cars are valuables, a new painting dog treats for MAX all the while that fire in the distance fuelled by high winds is burning much closer soon, it's right at the end of their street, then, all of a sudden. It was like just coming on so close that everybody at the same time decided to leave they get in their cars and start driving
their neighbours are all trying to get out to, and the narrow road is clogged with traffic flame surround them. I was just stood thought: let's turn around the fire keeps growing as they had back home and when they get their their house is on fire to so they go to the one place where the flames can't reach so great silicious get in the pool, and it made sense because I'm interested in their swimming, Poor, Christina and Gregor say from the flames, but not the smoke where the air superheated too, says of a thousand degrees Fahrenheit there, air trying brief was so hard air is so hot. It consumes the oxygen before they can catch her breath. Burns, their lungs and its White Greg's boys sound so horse Gregg holds Maximus their dog, he's squeezes Christine as hand as they dive under the water
I just those first twenty minutes starting down coming up, sometimes not really getting anywhere at all. What you say in your garden, I gotta go down again. They plunged into the freezing cold water again and again just to get a break from the blaze, the solar panels bubble and burst. Groundwater as their dream home turns to ash the fires. Could in its own, whether whipping debris all over the place flying embers had maximus in the eye,
me, I'm telling each other, and this could be it on its own and then re now we did in a couple more times. You know that the world, only God because we are all together was like within lay because I can bear the thought of separating you know is if we drop down and one of us made it one of us ten drivers meeting about you know, I just didn't think we would have a chance to revise its at this point. That authority send out the first evacuation orders. This call when, under the eleven thirty clear, such a resident third, as a large fire markets, ring road are several often play. Where recommending that you refer to evacuate your, God, you're, safe area Y, know
call goes out as the Wilson's are huddling together in the water, their cell phones on the side of the pool have melted into a pile of metal and splinter glass. Only about twelve hundred people who live in the hills above said, Rosa received that initial evacuation coal, as a fire booze out of a wildly sing towards densely populated neighborhoods. Most people are asleep, their beds and have no idea. What's coming. When we come back Suki Emma Risa take us into the neighborhoods, what people are waking up to a wall flames? This is wrong:
from the centre for investigating reporting in p earnings from the centre for investigative reporting and p ex vis is reveal. I'm outlets looking at the fires that swept through northern California wine country last fall in all forty four people lost their lives. In the deadliest fires and state history hundred and seventy two different places broke out. Across hundreds of miles of Northern California an area the size of Maryland in Delaware, combined, Kate, you we do orders LISA, pick of white Risa, loggers and Suki Louis, but taken us through their first night The crucial decisions were made. We jointly
in the hills about the city of Santa Rosa. Where shares deputy stumbling through the dark choking smoke trying to get residents to safety, this is audio from a sheriff deputies body can in the dark two officers pound on doors yelling at people to get out. They come across a woman who can't walk Harry her out of her house to their squad car by her arms and legs joint watch, I got you watch your language, deputy drives out. He can barely see out of his windshield. It's just smoke embers Rescuers will not get to every door. On this. At least eight people will end up dying along this road at another. In the video just around
midnight the officer. On the radio to ask about a neighborhood to the west. Can push on their evacuations is far worse. Can he's telling dispatchers they need to expand evacuations pushing towards me we're Hood in Santa Rosa called fountain broke. I wanna watch at one a m. This man calls to report on winery and fountain. Grove is on fire wandering watching a right now the boreal right toward ok, I need elite area. Then, despite many calls like that, it would be another hour merely to. I am before authority start calling people and fountain Grove and telling them to evacuate. Then the fire rips across highway. One oh won a six lane freeway that, runs through the middle of the city, residence on other side of that freeway and coffee park, a dense neighborhood. Where, within Santa Rosa City proper wake up to flee,
in the middle of the night. The other gunfire corbeille cod, I know you're, sorry right now. This fire has been headed toward their homes for four hours, but as Marie Sand. I found out few people here, get alerts of any kind So no, my officials could have notified every single person with a cellphone in that area through the same kind of system. It takes over your phone with those loud amber alert, but that wasn't there procedure. Instead, they chose to send another type of alert to specific areas that reached fewer people. They did this in two ways through texan emails, using a system that people have to sign up, for. Ahead of time. The county doesn't know how many people got those warnings, because it doesn't track that the following message:
in the center was emergency operations, and they also may cause to people's landmines, but only a third of those got through on the first try evacuated cow Fire Battalion chief Jonathan Cox, says with fires moving a hundred the minute chewing through phone lines and downing cellphone towers officials couldn't keep up. It was one of those instances where the disaster was moving faster than literally people could communicate. Up in the hills above Santa Rosa, the mass of flame front has passed, leaving Dragon and Christina Wilson. The couple who had in their swimming pool wet and freezing their lungs burnt. You know I thought we were
die, exhausted and no longer able to support herself Christina lies on a narrow, concrete, ledge, the deck around her burned away hours ago, survival mode marcher, my my brains, even thinking really thing else, is just watch span and which is how can each other on the ground? Then Gregg. Here's something this law wail of a siren. You know it's a small boy and I come here things get closer that point I just I gotta I'm talking like this, but I'm just waving screaming the Wilson's are saved by chance. One of their name, first managed to call a cop she was dating, who got caught fire to save them. Rescuers drive the Wilson's to a hospital lasting. I remember, Christine. I was lying on a guardian.
I was lying on a journey with MAX and there was a nurse there's gonna take Maximus and then they said that when we were gonna knock, you out Greg in Christina covered and burns are put into a medically induce coma. Nurses have to me them to another facility, because even the hospital catches Fire their dog max, is alive, but is near, a blind pressed. Where are you now you just gotta? Do it you do survive and At this point, fire fighter still aren't even thinking about putting out blazes they're just trying to save as many people as they can, but
our only so many firefighters and that mutual aid system neighbouring counties tat each other when they need help cow fires. Anna He bore a lil says it's breaking Sonoma depleted they have made, Your fire going. They called NAFTA, now that has a major fire going. They don't have any resources descend. They call lake late counties depleted. They have a major fire going, so they call their closest neighbour. Mendocino Mendocino has a major fire going. They don't have any resources to said earlier. Have any one left to draw from, and that map and her war room so many fires she's all out of magnets she's using post. It notes instead and the nearest Additional fire fighters are hours away. All these counts these that are touching each other, because that's where the weather event went through right are all impacted with their own disaster that, whether event
means more counties are getting hit by Hurricane Forest Gust of up to eighty miles per hour, and people are continuing to call nine one. One reporting electrical problems, Sir power lines and explosions and they're not sparking new fires there preventing first responders from doing their job, because they're not supposed to touch reason derive over a power line until electrical workers can guarantee the line is dead. We ask unit chief burly, why cow Our didn't consider asking the utility to shut down the power grid that is not something that we have historically done, but how fire can do this, they do it in southern California, campfires Jonathan Cock says it's just
procedure in this part of the state are world that we operate in is very procedurally driven policy and procedural driven right were were one colleague here in the large California, COG, we'll. This decision may have proven critical as the fires spread north to Mendocino County. I have to call a thing down the road. We're that highway when a one running through Santa Rosa. If you follow it, seventy miles north, the town start getting further apart. The farmlands more speed stout in the early morning hours, a woman in a small town called Redwood Valley finds herself surrounded by fire. She calls men on one here: Eureka evacuate right now I don't know. Madam
backward throughout the night. This is a pattern. Nine on one operators can't give people a clear directions on which way to flee. They tell them to shelter and place to wait for a knock on the door to drive through flames. Nobody seems to know what to do I've been trying to call nine one run through a few minutes nobody's hampered. In my opinion, there is a lot of fun. It's all about accounting, for the best thing I can do is take whatever action you feel is necessary and appropriate. Ok, tell me where I called a fight on alcohol somewhere. What no one? No one man literally there are multiple fires in the region. Just down the road from this cholera, Redwood Valley, fire chief, Brendan Turner, is directing his crews trying to get residents to safety he's pulled over at the bottom of a gate. A dirt driveway making calls for more funds. Are engines. The smoke billows around him, making it hard to see someone walks out of the darkness toward him. He said
it helped. So I got him over to the back of my patrol. On that point I was I was realizing that hid had significant burns was his hand as well as his face, and I I asked him his name any kind of cocked his head to decide which Brennan, why are you asking me this? and that's when I realized that I knew whoever this person was and when he when he told me his name, my my heart, just sank, His name is John Shepherd. He tells Turner that he got separated from his wife and two teenage kids. There still up there in the fire I know his family very well. My aid donors I grew up with him, not all family, and I was that was hard.
In a town, a small as redwood valley. Everyone knows each other for his fur air fighters, those aren't just three victims up on the hill. They are their friends and neighbors does another one of those areas where I was extremely concerned for the safety of the responders. Also, because they were, you know they were going make it up that he'll one way or the other turner has to make an impact. The bold decision and at one point I had to kind of pulling back a little bit and and say we have to wait until this passes a little bit before get up there. We are not able to help other people if we become victims as soon as the flames pass. Turner sends his fire fighters up. The hill among them twenty three year old Garrett. Johnson. Who also knows that a bird family Garrett finds the mom her seventeen year old, daughter Cressida. When we got up there,
They are both conscious alert. Speaking with us, so have high hopes for Are they wait for an ambulance to arrive Johnson and the other fire fighters, dress their burns and give them oxygen it still too dark and smoky to get a helicopter onto the valley where to air left them out. The mother was slightly declining as we're take her off the hill. From my assessment, I thought the daughter was the lesser of the two injuries turns on ozone. The shepherd parents survived with severe injuries but crasser, an aspiring artist and junior in high school, underwent multiple surgeries and ultimately died at a hospital her fourteen year old brother, Kai, who loved wrestling in the San Francisco giants. He didn't make it off the hill.
Ass. The sun rose that learning over Redwood Valley. Chief Brendan Turner was higher, on the west side of the valley. Joy vantage point of basically area on the valley floor, livid burned, and it was surreal. It was hard to imagine what I was saying gets the community that a lot of us have call home for a long time. I am to witness that amount of devastation and and still not know how many people we Admitting it wasn't damages is got wrenching to see that the fires to the massive toll. In the end, forty four people- ass, their lives, hundreds were injured and more. Nine thousand buildings burned down. It would take three weeks to contain them.
And while the fires were still burning, people began asking hard questions. At this community meeting at Santa Rosa High School on October, ninety people get emotional nerves. Still raw. Thousands of people are still actuated from their homes, and a woman asked the Santa Rosa fire chief, why she wasn't warned about the fires Why we have any the people want an answers from authorities, and we had questions too.
Though it was Suki was still out in the field reporting on these fires. Lisa pick off. Why and I started asking for public records. Wanting to get our hands on the nine one. One calls from that night and get him and by a minute sense of what was actually happening on the ground. Will we found were that the real? long gaps between first responders called for evacuation, sell the ground and when those alerts actually were sent out to people in danger, we talk to Aaron Abbot his executive director of the Sonoma County Dispatch Centre that was taking on one calls that may we asked him about those delays and whether they could have cost lives or sad about all the houses and wise losses anyway. Trust but Susan, but we have to say, is its own individual issue or decision is this is a system issue system we, as a system have to like
this together right. There is no question that first responders acted heroically that night, but systems broke down systems that you count on in an emergency were insufficient, so the three of us went to them and in charge of emergency response in California. His name is marked Geller Duty and he's head of the governors Office of Emergency services. Here's what he said when we asked what he thought. The failures were that first name under extreme conditions, massive wildfires, their smoke- there's debris there's a lot of activity. That's going on this it is our having to be made your premises a little bit like hey. What was the fact that how you started this conversation on? What was the failure? Your it has already. There was a failure made that bit. The truth of the matter is that there is a lot of cash skating challenges to have to deal with these kind of events that, like what ear the office is all about situations that are not the norm. We're supposed to have a system that can handle, or at least be somewhat prepared for animal
I would argue that the system did handle it and is prepared for emergencies. We ve got the best system that exist in the world and our ability to respond to these kind of events. Killer gucci didn't want to call them failures, but days after we spoke to him, his office issued a report confirming and in Cinema County Communication systems broke down, staff were not properly. Trained, and at the county should have used wireless emergency alerts. Those amber alert that set off everyone cellphones. However, when we spoke to Sonoma County officials hold us that they were worried about using those alerts because of mass panic and clogged roads killer did she says local officials tend to be over conservative about warning people is all these obstacles that they throw out in front of them. Oh, it's going to cost panic. Oh, gonna be traffic or it may or may not get to the exact streets were too
in about it may actually be broader than we want to do. I think that you know you you can't again, you can't let perfect get in the way of good enough. I guess you could say Officials are beginning to tackle many of the problems we uncovered through this investigation. Their state legislation pending that would create one standard for evacuation alerts throughout California. So if one Chauncey asks another four. First, nine one one or a next will alert. They'll know what they're talking about the federal, Man is looking at improving, Amber alert and dispatchers, and no Marconi are already being retrained so that they know what to tell people who are trapped by fires. Cal fire is still investigating the cause of these fires. But now page any says, there's a new normal that climate change is forcing them to change the way they do things. Page any such shutting down the electrical grid can cause its own problems, making it harder for first responders too,
communicate in an emergency leaving key infrastructure in the dark like traffic lights, but the utility is working with data else to consider powering down portions of the electrical grid ahead of extreme weather, to stop fires from spreading, like the utilities in southern CA, ferny already do residents here. Welcome these changes, but many still morning and have barely begun to rebuild their lives. Meanwhile, fires Season is already here. It never ends, Kate, you easily said, take off white Risa logos and Suki Louis Gonna continue reporting on this crisis and the decision delays, they may contain he did to so many deaths. You wanna go deeper, checkout cake, these new special on their podcast, the California Report Magazine and in ITALY,
with Suki their new podcast, the bay. Today we heard have emergency response system broke down during these wildfires on Wednesday. We will a special podcast. Looking yet another question: what next Thou be allowed to rebuild in another gonna, do it again, but that a fire will come again. Their devised crazy for them rebuild yeah do at least the way they had it. That's coming up Wednesday on special parkins check it out I Show- was edited by bread liars thanks to kick you D, Sonya, Hudson and Peter are coolly for additional reporting on the story, our production managers, my window and a wholesome, are sound design team is the dynamic dual J Breezy, Mr Jim Briggs, Fernando my man, Yo Aruba. They help from cat shipment thanks a damn burger
and sleeping giant records for additional music in this episode. Things eel is crystal sharper. Amy paths are editor in chief, our executive producers, Kevin Sullivan, a theme musics by Colorado, lightning support for reveals, provide by the Raven David Logan Foundation, the John D and Catherine Team Macarthur Foundation. The Jonathan Logan fail we foundation the Fort Foundation hiding Simons Foundation and the ethics and excellence in This foundation reveal is a coal production of the centre for thus gave reporting and p r ex I'm Alison and remember, there is always more to the story,
These are last few shows of the year, and let me tell you in twenty twenty we are bringing the fire launching some of our most ambitious projects we ve ever done. I can wait for you to hear them reveal, is all about going deep. Pulling on threads telling stories that matter and this kind of investigative journalism. Well, it takes time and it costs money. These are the final weeks. End of the year membership campaign. We depend on listeners like you to help make this work possible to support us just takes. The word reveal to four seven four, seven, four seven standard data rates apply and you can take stop or cancel at any time again. Just takes a word ravine I'll do for seven, four, seven, four! Seven! Let's go! Do some good work together.
Transcript generated on 2019-12-20.