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New evacuation warnings one year after the Camp Fire

Action News Now reporter Stephanie Lin asked county and town leaders what they are doing to make sure history does not repeat itself.

Posted: Nov 8, 2019 4:00 AM
Updated: Nov 8, 2019 4:27 PM

PARADISE, Calif. - After the Camp Fire, phone alerts are now more frequent than ever, a new normal for a community that still wonders why they were not warned, the day of the Camp Fire.

"[The fire] was so fast and so aggressive," remembers Brandi Harner. She is a Camp Fire survivor. 

"I screamed for my son to come outside. Nobody got a phone call, nobody got anything."

Despite signing up for emergency alerts on her cell phone and landline, Harner says she got no notice to evacuate. The only message came from PG&E, sent two days prior to November 8th, warning of a possible power outage.

"If that fire had started two hours earlier…most people would have…I would have died," says Harner.

"The way the evac notices went out, is not acceptable," said Paradise town councilman Mike Zucollilo. He's working to understand why the code red system failed that day.

"One of the fundamental notices of our evacuation is, you don't leave until you're told to. In this case, you have people waiting on notices that never came through."

The Butte County Sheriff's office says 15,000 of the 30,000 code red alerts were not received.

"What happens when the power goes down? When the cell towers go down? When the fiber to the town burns up?" said Zucollilo.

Town leaders are now considering ways to revamp their emergency notification system, which could include a standalone siren. It could sound like the new hi-lo siren introduced by the Butte County Sheriff's Office earlier this year. Deputies used it to run evacuations during the Swedes Fire. 

"What the Camp Fire showed us was that there are situations that can develop so rapidly, they can outpace our resources," said Sheriff Honea. 

The Sheriff acknowledged there is no catch-all solution to emergency notifications and asks people to have their evacuation plans in place.

"You cannot rely on one source for your information," he said. 

Sheriff Honea's office is now developing a phone line for evacuation information, and working with the Butte County Office of Emergency Services on ways to alert people even if they have no cell service. He's also working with Cal OES to create standardized terms for emergency situations, in different languages, from Spanish to Hmong.

Back to Brandi, she says she now gets emergency alerts more often than she expects. But she appreciates them. And despite all that's happened, she's now looking at options to rebuild in Paradise, one year, after the Camp Fire.

"I raised my son there. It's home. It's where my home is," she said. 

Paradise town leaders tell Action News Now revamping the evacuation warning system is a top priority, but the next order of business is clearing Paradise of all the dead trees, so people can safely rebuild. 

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Although we're a little cooler in northern California today, the wind is already blowing and our weather will get hotter and windier this weekend. A Red Flag Warning will be in effect for our area tonight through Monday evening.
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