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Yuba County now following statewide guidelines for evacuation messages

A screenshot of Yuba County's evacuation zone web map through the third-party platform Genasys Protect. None of the zones are under evacuation warning or order.
Angel Huracha
A screenshot of Yuba County's evacuation zone web map through the third-party platform Genasys Protect. None of the zones are under evacuation warning or order.

The next time people need to evacuate from a wildfire in Yuba County, officials will only send out two kinds of alerts: an evacuation warning and an evacuation order. That’s one less than they did a year ago.

By dropping one of the alerts, the county’s emergency management officials are bringing the region a step closer to a universal disaster communication language.

According to Rachel Abbott, public information officer for the county, officials will no longer issue evacuation advisories, which were formerly sent as a precursor to a warning.

“With just these two labels, it makes things easier to communicate with our public: either prepare to evacuate, or evacuate,” Abbott said in an email.

Advisories also weren’t compatible with the county’s CodeRED alert system. Unlike warnings or orders, residents under advisory wouldn’t get calls because they weren’t in immediate danger.

Advisories would however show up on the county’s searchable evacuation map. But that worried residents who thought there was something wrong with CodeRED.

Now, county officials hope there’s less confusion.

Abbott also said paring down the evacuation messages to just two types will help with something called “alert fatigue.” That’s when experiencing too many test runs or false alarms desensitizes people to an actual alarm.

Warning, order? What do they mean?

An evacuation order is urgent, meaning people in the area need to leave immediately.

An evacuation warning is the precursor to an order. Emergency managers say the warning level is critical for vulnerable groups — like seniors and disabled people — who need more time to prepare for evacuation and should leave sooner.

Moving to just these two terms puts Yuba County’s evacuation messaging in line with other local governments in California.

There’s no standard evacuation messaging that the state can enforce. But there are guidelines.

In 2020, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) recommended all local governments in the state use just the terms warning and order.

The guidelines were inspired by past deadly and destructive wildfires in 2017 and 2018, including the Carr and Camp fires.

Then-director of Cal OES Mark Ghilarducci wrote that those disasters showed how “inconsistencies in terminology across jurisdictions often led to confusion among the public.” He emphasized how important it was to use standard terminology throughout the state.

That’s one of the reasons Oscar Marin, emergency operations manager at Yuba County’s Office of Emergency Services, said his office made the change.

“Here in Yuba County, we're smaller,” Marin said. “We don't have that much staff – personnel and sheriffs – and so we request [through] a mutual aid agreement [that] other public safety agencies come to our county to assist.”

Now that all these agencies use the same evacuation language, Marin said working together should be less complicated.

“It makes it easier, simpler, when we go to do our documentation [during] recovery efforts,” Marin added.

Moving forward with uniform standards in the North State

Like Yuba County, many counties in the North State now follow the state’s guidelines for evacuation terminology.

Ames “Andy” Houghtby, deputy director of the Tehama County Office of Emergency Services, said before the Cal OES guidelines came out, each county in the North State used a different set of terms for evacuation.

“Other states still have different terms, like Oregon, and that can make communication across state lines a bit tougher during disasters,” Houghtby wrote in an email to NSPR.

Experts say it’s not just local governments that need to move toward a more uniform emergency alert standard.

Disaster risk reduction expert Olaf Neussner, who worked as a consultant on early warnings and disaster risk for the European Union and the United Nations, published a paper in 2021 reviewing early warning systems across the globe. He argued evacuation terminology should be standardized on the state and national level as well as internationally.

“The way the messages are coming across, how many alert levels you have, and what color coding you have, all that type of thing, that [should] be harmonized,” Neussner said.

And he said those messages need to be easier to understand. As climate change stokes migration across cultures and borders, Neussner said people shouldn’t have to learn a new set of evacuation terms to save their lives.

Neussner said there’s a global movement toward standardization waiting to happen. And while he believes the international community is slow to make progress on that front, he said local jurisdictions can lead the way in standardizing their emergency alert systems.

Jamie was NSPR’s wildfire reporter and Report For America corps member. She covered all things fire, but her main focus was wildfire recovery in the North State. Before NSPR, Jamie was at UCLA, where she dabbled in college radio and briefly worked as a podcast editor at the Daily Bruin.