California firefighters had their work cut out for them this week as they battled at least 21 wildfires across the state. The fires blazed in eight counties, forcing thousands upon thousands of residents to evacuate. As of Friday morning, at least 31 people had died in the fires, surpassing the death toll of the 1933 Griffith Park Fire, making these fires the most deadly fire-related emergencies in California’s history. The fires have torn through 191,000 acres of land, an area of land roughly thirteen times the size of Manhattan, destroying thousands of homes and commercial buildings.
Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency at the beginning of the week, and while the cause of the fire is still under investigation, experts have pointed to low humidity, dry vegetation and wind gusts of more than 50 mph as contributing factors to the fires’ immense destruction. The speed of the winds accelerating the flames across Northern California left many residents unaware of the threat quickly approaching their homes and, in some cases, giving them just minutes to try and escape the blaze. According to the Los Angeles Times, one resident of Santa Rosa recalled smelling smoke earlier in the day, but assumed it was simply a house fire nearby — and did not receive any alerts indicating otherwise.
Residents caught off guard by the fast-moving fires were woken up in their sleep by barking dogs and neighbors pounding on their doors. There have been multiple reports of neighbors fleeing on foot or in their vehicles. Yet the fires have also affected critical infrastructure, and the evacuation area north of Santa Rosa, one of the most heavily affected communities, included a section of Highway 101, a major west coast highway. A spokeswoman for the Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit of Cal Fire also noted that power and cell phone service had been knocked out in multiple cities within the region.
Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott told the Sacramento Bee that the fires, which started late Sunday night, “burned so quickly that there was no time to notify anybody”. In the days since, however, officials were barraged with questions as to why more people did not receive warnings of the impending danger. Wireless Emergency Alerts, issued to all personal cellphones in a geographic region in the case of an area safety threat, were not issued ahead of the fire, officials told the Los Angeles Times. According to the Federal Communications Commission, the alerts appear as text messages on all area cellphones. Though this is not the only means of informing residents of potential threats to their safety, it is the only service in the area that sends alerts to all cellphones, unless a user opts out. Similar services, such as SoCoAlert and Nixle, issued warnings to Napa and Sonoma County residents who registered for the program, but some residents reportedly failed to receive the warnings. “We’re going to find that some of these folks were just sleeping at home in bed, and had no idea because there were only minutes, if not seconds,” Pimlott informed reporters.
Area hospitals reported treating people for injuries including burns and smoke inhalation. One hospital system treated about 170 patients at its three area hospitals, and other hospitals have postponed all elective treatment in order to free up resources for patients affected by the fires.
“We are a resilient county, we will come back from this…But right now we need to grieve,” said Shirlee Zane, Sonoma County Supervisor.
Mandatory evacuations, school closures, shelter openings and curfews remain in place as the fires continue to disrupt and destroy communities across California. While October is typically a peak month for California wildfires, it’s unusual for so many fires to take off at once. So far, the fires have destroyed nearly 140,000 acres of land, and officials warn that the death toll is likely to continue to increase.
Follow the Global Resilience Institute for updates.
The Destruction from the California Fires in Photos and Maps – The New York Times
A Look Back at California’s Deadliest Wildfires – The New York Times
California Wildfire Leaves 31 Dead, a Vast Landscape Charred, and a Sky Full of Soot – The New York Times
Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) – Federal Communications Commission
Emergency Information – Santa Rosa Fire Department
California Fires Lay Waste to 140,000 Acres and Rage On – The New York Times