After sudden fire evacuations, Butte County communities turn to sirens
Pete Cuming was paged around 3 o’clock in the morning on Nov. 9, 2018 — less than 24 hours after the Camp Fire erupted in Butte County and overtook the town of Paradise.
“Last year we had the Dixie [Fire], and it was revisited in several meetings as to having something that would tell the town all at once that it’s time to go.”— Pete Cuming, Stirling City volunteer fire leader
Cuming, the head of the Stirling City Volunteer Fire Department, said it was feared flames would reach the small unincorporated community, which is surrounded by timberland and nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada about 15 miles up the road from Paradise.
“I ran around town with the fire truck and just hit the siren,” Cuming said. “People would come outside. ‘Is this it?’ ‘Yes, this is it. Gotta go.’”
The power was out at the time, he said, and firefighters were busy with the Camp Fire elsewhere.
“There was no help,” Cuming said. “Everybody, all the troops, were down below doing the best they could. They did show up as soon as the fire got here, though.”
Stirling City — a road sign pins the population at 295 — was spared the worst of the wildfire, which became the deadliest and most destructive in California’s history. But the community’s unease with that abrupt evacuation four years ago ultimately led Cuming and his crew to establish their own wildfire evacuation system.
Stirling City joins a list of other Butte County and California communities — including the town of Paradise and several in Lake County — that are turning to sirens to supplement local emergency notification systems that some survivors say have fallen short in recent wildfire evacuations.
Community takes action
On a sunny afternoon in March, an old sawmill siren attached to the roof of the Stirling City volunteer fire station blared over the town. It was the first community-wide test of the station’s new wildfire evacuation siren.
“After the Camp Fire, we had a lot of folks that were concerned about notification of evacuation — that sort of thing,” Cuming said. “Of course, everybody was on edge. And then, of course, last year we had the Dixie [Fire], and it was revisited in several meetings as to having something that would tell the town all at once that it’s time to go.”
But questions remain. Will people hear the siren in the event of a wildfire evacuation? And is it viable? Early feedback suggested mixed results.
Cuming said the station’s siren relies on electricity, and the volunteer fire station does not have backup power should power fail or be shut off by PG&E during bouts of fire weather conditions. He said the nearby Cal Fire-Butte County station in Stirling City has backup power, but no fixed outdoor warning siren. A Cal Fire spokesman didn’t confirm the station’s power situation but relayed that neither Cal Fire-Butte County nor the Butte County Sheriff’s Office activates outdoor warning sirens for evacuations.
Further, Stirling City resident Penny Spaletta told NSPR she heard from others in the town that the siren “wasn’t loud enough.”
John Hawkins, a lieutenant who’s been associated with the Stirling City Volunteer Fire Department since 1979, gathered data from the siren’s test run. He said one man who’s hard of hearing reported feeling he wouldn’t have heard the siren if he was asleep or had the TV on. However, Hawkins added that one woman at the edge of the town reported hearing the siren “fine” outside and inside her home.
Ultimately, he said, the intended goal of the siren is to notify the town of a threat and get people moving.
“The hope through all of this, too, is that they’ve done other preparedness plans in the event of a wildfire — the ‘go bag,’ whatever it may be, knowing where to find out information,” Hawkins said. “All those things are important, too. So, this is hopefully the last resort in the event of a wildfire evacuation.”
Hawkins said in Stirling City, one challenge during evacuations is trying to reach older people, some of whom are technologically illiterate. Another challenge is reaching those who aren't interested in using social media, which is used heavily during emergencies.
“A lot of the same people that don’t have internet, social media, may not also have a smartphone or a cell phone to get the CodeRED or any of those other notifications,” he said. “So, we’ve got to be able to watch for those certain people and hope for the best.”
“We need the system to function with the power out. To function if there is no internet. To function if all cell towers have burned down.”— Colette Curtis, Paradise recovery and economic development director
Camp Fire lessons
Down the road in Paradise, which is in recovery following the Camp Fire, a more substantial siren system is in the works.
Colette Curtis, the town’s recovery and economic development director, said the system will comprise 21 sirens with voice capabilities placed throughout the town. Curtis reports the sirens are scheduled to be installed starting in January. It’s expected the system will be operational by spring 2023.
It’s been a long time coming, Curtis said, acknowledging the community’s frustration with not having the system in place for years after the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 buildings.
Before the Camp Fire, she said, it was thought a siren system would cause more panic than assistance.
“However,” Curtis said, “what we found during the Camp Fire — in an emergency that is so extreme with a scope that is so large — we really needed a redundant system to ensure that our residents could get the information they needed in an emergency.”
Paradise’s siren system — which is being developed with the help of a $2.2 million FEMA Hazard Mitigation Assistance Grant — is designed to work when other modes of emergency communication fail.
“That was one of the needs that we expressed,” Curtis said. “That we need the system to function with the power out. To function if there is no internet. To function if all cell towers have burned down.”
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, whose office has taken on increasing responsibility over the county’s emergency notification system since the Oroville Dam spillway crisis in 2017, takes a cautionary stance on the use of warning sirens.
“Sirens are effective when they warn of one threat — for example, tsunami — with one response — for example, run uphill,” Honea said. “And they work well in relatively confined areas where you have a concentration of people.”
A siren’s effectiveness lessens, the sheriff contends, when it’s used to warn of multiple types of threats and provoke multiple types of responses. For example, Honea says a siren would likely work well in Stirling City, which has few escape routes for evacuation.
“The farther you get away from that,” he said, “and the more threats you want to warn about with a siren, and the more options you have in terms of response, I think the effectiveness becomes less.”
Siren systems, he added, are also “expensive.”
“People have asked me many times, you know, ‘When is the Sheriff's Office going to put sirens throughout the foothills?” Honea said. “And the first response is, I don't install sirens. That's not what the Sheriff's Office does. I don't have the budget for that. I don't have the expertise to do that. I don't have the resources to do that.”
“The more threats you want to warn about with a siren, and the more options you have in terms of response, I think the effectiveness becomes less.”— Kory Honea, Butte County Sheriff
Honea said he welcomes communities developing their own solutions for wildfire evacuations, but he wants to keep lines of communication open.
“We need to think about what that means in terms of how we communicate to the people who have control over the siren,” he said, “because there needs to be some coordination between that.”
‘You don’t have alarms?’
On a recent, windy morning in the Lake County community of Middletown — population 1,300 — an outdoor warning siren sounded as much of the community went about its day’s activities — dining, using the post office, running to the store.
There was no immediate danger. Middletown’s outdoor warning siren is tested for 30 seconds at 11 a.m. on the first Monday of every month. It’s part of a network of sirens owned and maintained by the South Lake County Fire Protection District that’s been in place since 2018, according to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.
“I think the siren system has been a reminder to people about how quickly something can come on,” said Joan Jacobs, a Lake County resident NSPR spoke with in Middletown, adding, “I think any community that is in a fire area — which is almost all of California right now — benefits greatly.”
“You don’t have alarms? That’s crazy. I would think they would have that installed already. I mean, something to alert people.”— Travis Tilley, Lake County resident
Jacobs said warning sirens increase community awareness to an emergency.
“When you’re working with natural disasters, I don’t think that you can get enough information out, because it happens so quickly and it can be so devastating,” she said. “I almost tear up as I talk about this when I think of things that have been lost here.”
Lake County is no stranger to disaster. In 2015, the Valley Fire claimed more than 1,200 homes, with more than 500 in Middletown and surrounding areas, according to the Press Democrat. In 2016, the Clayton Fire destroyed nearly 200 homes. About 140 homes were taken by the Sulphur Fire in 2017. The Cache Fire destroyed more than 50 homes in 2021.
Middletown resident Travis Tilley said the community’s outdoor warning siren — which is affixed to a pole at the local fire station — is important to notify the community that “something” is going on. Tilley said he can hear the town’s siren in his home.
“With the way things are around here with the drought going on, and the dry brush that will eventually come — yeah, I definitely would rather be alerted than not,” he said, expressing surprise when told communities in Butte County don’t have widespread outdoor siren systems similar to those in Lake County.
“You don’t have alarms?” Tilley said, adding, “That’s crazy. I would think they would have that installed already. I mean, something to alert people.”
Back in the Butte County community of Stirling City, Cuming, the volunteer fire leader, hopes the town’s new outdoor siren can fill an emergency notification gap. He said his crew knows the town could again be in a fire’s path.
“Every summer now,” he said, “we’re all on pins and needles.”
While Cuming keeps watch, the old sawmill siren on top of the Stirling City Volunteer Fire Department sits quietly, waiting to sound the alarm.