Butte County fire survivors say emergency notifications are falling short
On the night of Sept. 8, 2020, Donnie Boeger broke into his 83-year-old neighbor’s home, yelling at her to wake up.
“You know how freaky that makes a guy feel?” Boeger recounted nearly a year later. “She freaked out. I mean, ‘Wake up right now! You gotta go!’”
The Bear Fire — later known as the North Complex — was barreling down on Boeger, his neighbor and everyone else that lived in the Butte County community of Berry Creek that night. The local sheriff’s office had been issuing emergency alerts for hours, but Boeger said he and his girlfriend never received one.
“I knew it was coming because the ash, and the heat, and the wind. But no one come and told me, no one called me, no one drove up my road,” Boeger said. “We went door to door knocking on people’s doors and honking.”
Boeger’s story isn’t unique. In interviews and testimonials conducted and reviewed by NSPR, a portrait has emerged showing emergency notification systems can fail people particularly vulnerable to natural disasters: the elderly, the poor and those who either choose to not be online or who lose power and phone service when access to emergency information is vital.
The Bear Fire killed 16 people, including a 16-year-old boy. Two years prior, the Camp Fire, which spread through Paradise, Concow, Magalia and Butte Creek Canyon, killed 85 people — about 80% of whom were 65 years old or older.
Major disasters in Butte County over the last five years, including those fires and the 2017 Oroville Dam spillway crisis, which prompted evacuation orders for more than 100,000 people, have led local law enforcement to improve its patchwork of emergency notification systems. The system currently includes social and traditional media, CodeRED, radio-based AlertFM receivers, high-low patrol car sirens, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System — which is FEMA’s national system that allows local authorities to issue alerts through mobile phones, radio and television — and old-fashioned door-knocking.
Butte County’s elected sheriff, Kory Honea, said his office is thinking about — and preparing for — the worst happening again. California is staring down a possible fourth straight year of drought. This year’s dire conditions in the North State and U.S. West laid bare a landscape ripe for deadly, climate-driven wildfires.
“We have had to just deal with so much, and we have had to issue so many evacuation warnings and orders over the last couple years,” Honea said. “But we try to learn, and we try to evolve.”
Zoning out the county
The sheriff spoke those words in March, when his office unveiled a newly developed evacuation map for Butte County, carving municipalities and communities into zones, akin to political districts. Berry Creek, for example, is cut into more than 20 individual zones. First responders say the pre-mapped zones will save critical time identifying areas under threat during an emergency such as a wildfire.
Lt. Stephen Collins, who oversaw the emergency management unit at the Butte County Sheriff’s Office and rollout of the county-wide zone map before retiring in October, told NSPR earlier this year that law enforcement previously worked with firefighters during an incident to draw unique maps of areas under threat, a time-consuming effort. The universal zone system is meant to speed up emergency communication.
“On the alerting side,” Collins said, “we've pre-loaded those zones into those alerting systems so that we just pick which zones and they automatically populate on the map.”
Collins has been imploring county residents to look up their zones, commit them to memory and save them to their phones, because they’re what the Sheriff’s Office will use to alert people to evacuation warnings and orders. The zone system has been used for multiple fire evacuations this year.
The evacuation zone map is one of the newer emergency notification tools introduced by the Sheriff’s Office. But Honea, the sheriff, says no one emergency alerting system will achieve perfection.
“There’s no way to guarantee 100% saturation of your message,” Honea said, adding, “which is why there has to be a collaborative effort on our part — as well as the community’s part — to do whatever we can to overcome the inevitable shortcomings or shortfalls of a system that relies upon technology.”
When zones fail
Shortcomings of an evacuation zone system were seen four years ago, when the Camp Fire burned Paradise. The town was zoned out at the time of the fire, which sparked the morning of Nov. 8, 2018. During the fire, officials began evacuating the town by zone but ultimately abandoned the system before evacuating all the Paradise ridge at once.
For Shannan Troxel-Andreas, who lived in Paradise and lost her home in the fire, waiting for a zone that was never called hindered her evacuation. Troxel-Andreas spoke to NSPR for Chico State’s Camp Fire Oral History Project. In the interview, she recalled knowing there was a fire near Paradise about 30 minutes after it was first reported. However, she delayed evacuating for nearly two-and-a-half hours because she didn’t see her zone listed while following social media and official updates.
“We knew our zone from the previous year, and made mental note of that and had the little evacuation thing on our fridge,” she said. “But our zone hadn’t been called and there’d been like 20-30 minutes since any other zones had been called, so I thought, that’s weird. Because the smoke is getting worse, the smell is getting closer, but there’s no evacuations.”
At that point, Troxel-Andreas decided to trust her gut and put her daughter and dog in the car.
“We just went around the corner, probably 150 yards, and somebody's backyard was on fire,” she said.
NSPR asked Honea how zoning out the entire county would play out differently in a future disaster than in Paradise. The sheriff first pointed to the Camp Fire’s “unprecedented” nature but acknowledged breakdowns could happen again.
“There are no guarantees that any system is going to allow you to systematically and calmly orchestrate an evacuation,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, most evacuations by nature become chaotic.”
He said the purpose of the evacuation zone map is to improve emergency responses, but he urged residents to also have their own threshold for when to evacuate.
“There is no one foolproof system, which is why I continually tell people, you have to pay attention, you have to be situationally aware, you have to be able to adapt to rapidly evolving situations, situations that outpace any, you know, reasonable pre-planning that could have been done.”
After 85 deaths, 16 more
Two years after the Camp Fire, official emergency communications also failed to reach people in the path of the Bear Fire. The fire burned the communities of Berry Creek and Feather Falls, and while the Sheriff’s Office sent alerts hours before the fire hit the area, residents — like Misty Mcdivitt — say some notifications did not appear to get through.
“We did not get an [evacuation order] alert,” she said. “We received a warning, and then Berry Creek is such a small, tight community that even the firefighters that worked up here they lived up here. So like when one person was like ‘Hey, the fire is on Zink Road,’ that’s how everybody found out. It was more so like everybody in the community telling everybody else.”
Another Berry Creek resident, Tyyler Burrett, said one of the main issues was that the power was out. According to documents submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E had initiated a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) — affecting Berry Creek — which means the utility intentionally shuts off power to areas during bouts of dry, windy conditions in hopes of avoiding a fire sparked by the .
“We had no access to radio or TV,” Burrett said. “That’s why so many people died up here.”
Neither Burrett nor his wife got an emergency alert on their phones, he said. Friends called them.
“Usually you get an evacuation warning, and then you get a mandatory [order],” he said, adding, “We only got the, ‘You got to get out of here now,’ and within two hours, everything was up in flames.”
A spokesman for PG&E, Paul Moreno, told NSPR the PSPS was initiated on Sept. 6, 2020, which was two days before the Bear Fire burned Berry Creek. He said at the time, there was no indication the fire — which had been burning in Plumas County — would approach the community. Once power is turned off, he said, PG&E can’t restore power until adverse weather conditions have passed and circuits are patrolled to make sure it’s safe.
“The decision to initiate a PSPS is not taken lightly,” Moreno said, “and is done as a last resort for public safety given exceptional drought conditions and dry, offshore winds that heighten wildfire risk.”
Boeger — the man who broke into his 83-year-old neighbor’s home to wake her up during the evacuation — said without power there was little phone service.
“Everyone has a cordless phone so they couldn’t get a phone call. Half the cell phones didn’t work,” Boeger said.
The power outage also meant some people were running generators, he said, which may have drowned out the high-low evacuation sirens the Sheriff’s Office says patrol deputies were sounding.
“People were not getting notified,” he said. “They weren’t driving through the yards, they weren’t honking horns, they didn’t have that special siren they come up with. If it wasn’t for people like me … that went and knocked on their neighbor’s door, or kicked it in, more people would have died.”
This article is the first in a series exploring emergency communication in Butte County. The series is supported by America Amplified, an initiative to bring community engagement to reporting.