Desperate calls to save those trapped by fire, but emergency alert system failed many

The distress calls crackled over the Napa County sheriff’s dispatch radio in a rapid staccato late Sunday as flames sped toward residents on Atlas Peak Road.

“Parents trapped in garage,” an officer called in to the central dispatcher. Then: “The fire is moving quickly through here.”

Two minutes later, the dispatcher sent someone to another house on the same road: “Two people trapped.”

A minute passed, then a call to still another house: “An elderly lady trapped.”

The dispatcher sent out an all-points request to send “any units in the area,” then made a chilling plea: “Two people called, advising their house is on fire, and they need help evacuating.”

Over the radio, officers in the field reported propane tanks exploding throughout the neighborhood, which would soon lay in ruins.

The dispatch calls, which began pouring out after 10:30 p.m., less than an hour after the fire was first reported, provide a harrowing narrative of the frantic, confusing efforts to rescue people from the Atlas Peak fire, which by Tuesday had burned 25,000 acres and destroyed more than 100 structures.

On Tuesday, Napa County officials confirmed the identity of an elderly couple who died in their home in the neighborhood: World War II veteran Charles Rippey, 100, and his wife, Sara, 98. They had just celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary.

In what has been called one of the worst firestorms in state history, at least 3,500 homes, businesses and other structures have been destroyed in 16 fires in Northern California in recent days.

At least 23 people, including the Rippeys, have died in the fires.

In Napa County — where at least three major wildfires, the Atlas Peak, Tubbs and 1,000-acre Partrick fire burned — the chaos was accentuated by a problematic alert system. Residents reported difficulties receiving fire alerts, an issue possibly caused by fire damage to cellphone towers, officials said Tuesday.

“We are well aware that there are challenges,” said Kristi Jourdan, a county spokeswoman. “It’s been a challenge to get information to folks at times using Nixle. I know some folks have had problems receiving text messages.”

Nixle is a text and email alert system used by public safety agencies, schools and other entities.

In a news conference Tuesday, Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, acknowledged that many evacuees were struggling to access alerts or get in touch with each other. He said that across Northern California, 77 cell sites were destroyed or damaged, and that the state is creating mobile communications units to help.

In addition to using Nixle, Jourdan said the county partners with local radio stations KVON-AM and KVYN-FM, and posts messages on its Facebook and Twitter pages.

Napa resident Brenda Burke, 55, said a Nixle alert Sunday about the Atlas Peak fire came in about 30 minutes after it was postmarked at 11 p.m. She said she was first alerted to the fire earlier in the night by a friend who sent a text message.

A volunteer at the Red Cross shelter in Napa said Tuesday that one evacuee told her he didn’t get a cellphone alert until an hour after he had left his home. Others said they received no warnings, despite signing up for automated text messages from the Napa County Sheriff’s Department.

Georgia Hansford, who has lived in the Napa Hills area since 1959, said that the moment she and her sister saw flames crest the ridge line on Atlas Peak above their home on Silverado Trail, they knew they had to get out fast.

“The most frustrating part is no news,” Hansford, a retired school bookkeeper, said Tuesday. “All they keep doing is telling us to stay out.”

At the Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa, employees didn’t wait to act, going door to door on the sprawling property as flames on nearby Atlas Peak ridge burned toward them. Julie Maurer, vice president of marketing for the resort, said staffers told guests: “You have to go. You have to go now.”

Silverado was more than 80% full because the resort hosted a PGA tournament over the weekend. At least 300 people were evacuated from the property, which was damaged by the flames.

Professional golfer Patton Kizzire, who played in the tournament, tweeted shortly after 11 p.m. Sunday: “I’ve never run from a wild fire before.”

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