By James Rainey
LOS ANGELES — Belated warnings from public officials and the reluctance of residents who had survived previous fires to leave home were among the factors that contributed to the delayed and chaotic evacuation in what has become the deadliest wildfire in California history, survivors said.
Some of those who escaped from the massive Camp Fire last week questioned why Butte County leaders did not do more to warn residents of Paradise and neighboring mountain communities as a fire whipped with fearsome speed through the mountainous region north of Sacramento.
Most of the attention following the wildfire has focused on the search for dozens of people still missing and the possibility that power equipment belonging to the electric utility PG&E may have sparked the fire. But a few residents have begun to ask why notice did not get out to more people about the fire, which has killed 48 and destroyed an estimated 7,600 single-family homes, both records for California.
We were trying to move tens of thousands of people out of an area very rapidly with the fire coming very rapidly. And no matter what your plan is to do that, no plan will ever work 100 percent when you are dealing with that much chaos.”
“They definitely didn’t do enough,” said Christina Taft, whose 67-year-old mother has been missing since the fire. “She didn’t expect it to be that bad. She expected someone would be calling, or something, if it got bad. But they didn’t.”
“They were negligent. They just let them go,” said Taft, who has had no word from her mother, Victoria, since last Thursday. “There is a reason all these people are dead.”
A resident of Magalia, about 8 miles west of the fire’s starting point, confronted Butte County Sheriff Kory L. Honea and other officials Monday about why he and his neighbors could not find any information about the dangerous blaze, a full three hours after fire crews first responded to the ignition point, near Highway 70 in Plumas National Forest.
“We use the emergency broadcast system for a tornado warning. But this is a deadly fire,” said the man, who was not identified by county officials whom he addressed at the meeting in Oroville. “I don’t remember any alert coming over my radio…. People in the community are freaking out, you need to get some information up here.”
The Butte County sheriff’s office said it did deliver notifications about the fire danger: 5,227 by email, 25,643 via phone (to both land lines and cellular devices) and 5,445 by text message.
“I wish we had the opportunity to get more alerts out, more of a warning out, but unfortunately we didn’t,” Sheriff Honea told the public meeting on Monday.
At a news conference Tuesday evening, Honea stressed that the fire’s unusually swift progress south and west into Magalia, Paradise and other mountain communities made timely notification difficult.
“You have to keep in mind that this was an extraordinarily chaotic and rapidly moving situation. The fire started in a remote area. It takes awhile for our fire resources to get there and from that point, trying to determine the path of travel and whether or not that’s going to effect populated areas, that takes time,” Honea said.
He added that it’s possible some people were warned and didn’t immediately act to get out of harm’s way. “We were trying to move tens of thousands of people out of an area very rapidly with the fire coming very rapidly. And no matter what your plan is to do that, no plan will ever work 100 percent when you are dealing with that much chaos.”
Honea, who took office four years ago, also suggested that emergency officials have to be concerned not to over-burden people with excessive or unneeded evacuation orders. He said the region had already lived through evacuations from earlier fires and last year’s threatened collapse of the Oroville Dam, which caused nearly 200,000 people to flee.
“So that takes a toll on people,” Honea said. “I don’t want to ever get into situation where people begin to stop paying attention because they feel like we are ordering evacuations for no cause or for very little cause.”
Like other counties, Butte has a system that allows residents to sign up for “reverse 911” telephone alerts in times of emergency.
Savannah Rauscher told the Sacramento Bee that by the time she got the 911 alert at 8:30 a.m., embers and dust were already flying around her family’s Edgewood Lane home.
“We saw a wall of fire,” she told the newspaper. “Trees were glowing 50 yards away and it was probably moving like 10 yards every couple minutes…. I had no idea it could be that fast.”
Rausher and her husband soon found themselves in a long and unmoving line of cars. Her husband pulled into what normally would have been the oncoming traffic lane to escape, saying “We’re not going to die like this.” Rausher said she waved other cars to follow along to safety.
High on the ridges above the Sacramento Valley, many homes do not have easy cellphone service, or access to WiFi. It’s unknown how much that isolation may have prevented residents from getting word of the fire.
Risa Johnson, a reporter for the Chico Enterprise-Record, said people in her newsroom also wondered how many residents might not sign up for the reverse 911 warnings because of concern about giving the government their personal information. The Sierra Nevada foothills are home to some who moved there precisely because they wanted to get away from intrusion by public officials.
But even signing up for the warnings was no guarantee they came through. Johnson said her aunt, Peg, applied for the 911 alerts, but received no notice at her Paradise home of the Camp Fire. “She said she didn’t get anything,” Johnson said. “It was friends and family calling, or neighbors coming by. That’s how many people found out.”
Taft said that no one she talked to in her neighborhood near the center of Paradise got official notification to evacuate. She said that, without the urging of authorities, she could not get her mother to leave. “Seniors expect an authority to tell them to leave,” she said. “And they did not get the authorities to tell them this time.”
Sheriff Honea was greeted warmly by much of the crowd at Monday’s public hearing. And some fire victims said it was wrong to blame the government for the fire’s toll.
“This was an act of God, if you asked me,” said Bill Husa, 55, a long-time photographer for the Chico Enterprise Record. “None of these officials have control over 50-mile-an-hour winds and a raging wildland fire. There is no way they had time to get everyone notified.”
Questions about emergency notifications are becoming a more routine reality for emergency management officials nationwide, given storms, floods and wildfires made more potent as a result of global warming, said Rob Lewin, director of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management.
“Nationwide we are all feeling the trauma of climate change and the number of disasters we are facing over and over again,” said Lewin. “We have to build an emergency management system that is ready to handle the new situation we are dealing with.”
After firestorms last year devastated broad swaths of Sonoma and Napa counties and blackened a record number of acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, many people reported they did not receive emergency warnings.
Lewin said his county has beefed up its notification system as a result — sending word of evacuations over land lines, cell phones, social media and traditional news outlets. Still, the system is not foolproof. Just 12 percent of the county’s residents have signed up to receive so-called reverse 911 notifications in emergencies, despite last year’s fires and a subsequent debris flow that killed 21 people. Even a system designed to push warnings to all cell phones, tested recently by the Trump Administration, did not reach everyone.
Lewin said he had two cell phones side by side during that test, both serviced by the same phone company, and only one received the emergency alert. “And we don’t know the reason why,” he said.
An exacerbating factor in Butte County may have been the advanced age of many residents. Paradise and its environs are popular with retirees, some of whom are reluctant to leave home because of mobility problems. Feather River Hospital had to rely on private cars and trucks to get out many of its patients, just ahead of the flames.
Courtney Wright, a medical assistant, said her 54-year-old father was not compelled to leave his Magalia home even as the threat seemed to escalate. “We have had so many fires up there that it’s kind of like it’s nothing,” said Wright. “It’s just on to the next.” When the house behind his caught on fire, its propane tank exploding, Wright’s father finally decided it was time to move on.
Residents did not find an easy path to safety. The narrow mountain roads out of the communities quickly jammed, forcing some people to leave their cars and run for their lives. The incinerated corpses of others, still in their cars, provided ample evidence that the alarm wasn’t raised in time.
As Sheriff Honea was pressed for more answers at Monday’s meeting, he acknowledged that thoughts of those who could not escape troubled him. “I understand it was absolutely chaotic,” Honea said. “I will probably never be able to give you an answer that satisfies you.”
James Rainey is a reporter for NBC News, based in Los Angeles.