In the aftermath of deadly fires that swept through Mendocino County last month, officials are examining why air raid sirens remained silent as flames swept into neighborhoods.
Nine people died in the Oct. 9 fire in Redwood Valley, where it took more than an hour for the Sheriff’s Department to begin evacuation alerts. Both Redwood Valley and nearby Potter Valley have air raid sirens, but they were not used to warn residents.
Questions over the sirens are part of a larger examination of how firefighters responded to the worst wildfires in California history, which killed more than 40 people across wine country and destroyed more than 7,000 homes.
When fires swept into Mendocino County, many residents said they had no warnings to evacuate.
The first response to fire in both Redwood and Potter valleys fell to volunteer fire departments. In Potter Valley, officials said the decision to not sound the air raid sirens was deliberate.
“We made a decision to not blow it because the local people would not know what it meant, and we didn't want anybody on the road, because of the lines and the trees that were down,” Bill Pauli, chief of the volunteer fire department in Potter Valley, said Thursday at a press briefing in Ukiah arranged by the county sheriff.
“It would have sent a mixed message on what was happening. The safest place for them at that time was in their homes.”
In Redwood Valley, Acting Fire Chief Brendan Turner said that although the sirens behind the volunteer station are blown at noon six days a week, they had not been used for warnings for decades.
“It is a manually operated button. It is antiquated. We've been working with the sheriff about upgrading that system so it can be used to notify citizens in emergencies,” Turner said.
Residents of Redwood Valley expressed concern that the alarms were not used, saying they could have given residents more time to flee and possibly could have saved lives.
“People are upset about that alarm not going off,” resident Ryan Nelson, a local firefighter, told the Los Angeles Times last week.
A chronology released this week by Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman confirmed that emergency dispatchers were overwhelmed by 911 calls during the fire siege, leaving decisions on evacuation orders to sheriff’s officers who first had to drive to the scene.
All of the fatalities occurred in Redwood Valley, where the fire was first reported at 12:32 a.m. on Oct. 9, according to dispatch logs released to The Times. Mass evacuation alerts did not go out until approximately 1:45 a.m., after being requested by a sheriff’s lieutenant who drove from home to the fire, The Times reported last week.
In the interim, dispatch recordings show officers in both valleys who asked earlier about public evacuation orders were told to hold off. According to a dash cam video released by the sheriff’s office, a deputy driving south away from the fire used his public address system at 1:34 a.m. to tell residents to leave.
Half of those who died appeared to be trying to flee. All but one lived along a route that burned over in the first 90 minutes of the wind-driven fire.
Mendocino County has not yet responded to requests for public records that would provide more detail on when and how its alerts went out. By the time alerts were sounded, the fire had swept through the north end of the valley. Residents interviewed by The Times said they were largely on their own.
At Thursday’s briefing, Allman said “there are lessons” from the fire.
“Improving the ability of sergeants to make an immediate call for Reverse 911 is something we are looking at,” he said, referring to automated calls on cellphones and landlines to warn those in the path of fires.
“Working with the fire departments where they will have the ability to immediately request Reverse 911 is something we are looking at.”
Allman also called for a return to sirens, whose use has fallen by the wayside as communities turn to cellular and internet-based services provided by private vendors.
“We've gone through the stages of technology. I hope that Mendocino County can take a step back and we can reposition air raid sirens. … I am hoping that citizens won’t forget this.”