Kathy King had gone for a swim last Friday evening to escape the brutal heat when she suddenly smelled smoke. From her Goleta home she watched a brown plume grow over Holiday Hill less than a mile away. King, registered with the county’s Aware & Prepare emergency notification system, immediately checked her cell phone for an alert or evacuation order. Nothing. So she logged onto NextDoor and started following the news to find out about the wind-whipped fire heading her direction.
Stephanie Jamgochian, living even closer to the foothills and signed up with Aware & Prepare, also didn’t receive an alert and kept tabs on the Holiday Fire via her “coconut wireless” network of neighbors and family. She was frustrated by the lack of communication from the county, a sentiment shared by many Goleta residents both inside and outside the mandatory evacuation zone, which impacted approximately 3,200 people north of Cathedral Oaks Road between La Patera Lane and Patterson Avenue.
“It seems like we really dodged a bullet,” Jamgochian said, recalling the massive wildfires that raced through Sonoma County last year and killed 25 people who received little to no warning from their public safety leaders. “It could have been catastrophic. Someone was asleep at the wheel.”
Not asleep, exactly, but not in control, either. Summoned to the floor this Tuesday by a Board of Supervisors looking for answers, Sheriff Bill Brown explained dispatchers were “crushed” by dozens of 9-1-1 calls Friday night and so needed backup from off-duty staff. He said his department failed to issue a cell phone evacuation order because the dispatch supervisor tasked with sending the WEA (Wireless Emergency Alerts) message was working from home and didn’t have the necessary access code. “This is something we’re concerned about and trying to address,” he said.
Brown stressed that at 9:14 p.m., approximately 35 minutes after the fire began, the Aware & Prepare system did successfully send out emails and Reverse 9-1-1 calls to landlines within the mandatory evacuation zone. By that time, however, many homes in the area had lost power. Brown also said the nighttime fire was bright and violent enough to convince residents to leave. “A lot of people knew what to do without being told to evacuate,” he said. Of the 3,200 residents alerted, more than 2,500 left their homes.
Katy Craig was one of them. “We learned of the Holiday Fire when our power went out and we saw the fire out the window,” she told the Independent, wishing Aware & Prepare had buzzed her phone that she registered after the Thomas Fire. “Even 10 extra minutes to pack before we lost electricity would have really helped us.” Rebecca Garbett agreed. “Disappointed in the alert system!” she wrote in an email that described a chaotic scene of neighbors driving down the hill and honking at residents to flee.
A second round of Aware & Prepare notices was delayed by an overheated computer server but eventually went out at 12:21 a.m., Rob Lewin, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM), told the supervisors. He also acknowledged there were “some problems” in communication between firefighters and deputies in the field, dispatchers, and OEM managers, and he said his department struggled to find the balance between expediency and accuracy in its public messaging. “This is hard,” he said. “We’re doing something that is very difficult.” Any mistakes that were made, he said, were “not from lack of trying.”
In a later interview, Lewin said he first learned a WEA message had not been sent when he made contact with the dispatch supervisor at approximately 10 p.m. It is protocol, he said, for the Sheriff’s Office to do the initial alerting during a disaster before handing off those duties to the OEM. The WEA system, part of the county’s emergency services for two years now, was recently updated with the “geo-fencing” ability to target recipients by neighborhood, Lewin explained. Over 50,000 county residents are signed up to receive Aware & Prepare WEA alerts.
Supervisor Janet Wolf, who represents Goleta, thanked Sheriff’s deputies for conducting door-to-door evacuations and undoubtedly saving lives, but she called Brown’s explanation for his department not issuing WEA warnings “unacceptable.” “We need better protocols, and we need them immediately,” she said, particularly with the fresh reality of a year-round fire season and record-breaking summer temperatures. “Frankly,” she continued, “I also worry about other emergencies that aren’t immediately on our minds, like earthquakes.”
Other than some support from Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who suggested dispatcher staffing levels be increased during red-flag warnings, as they are for deputies and firefighters out in the field, Wolf received little backup from her colleagues. Supervisor Peter Adam said Brown didn’t deserve to be “crucified” for an imperfect performance. Supervisor Das Williams tried to give Brown and Lewin credit for issuing evacuation orders sooner than they actually did. And Supervisor Steve Lavagnino took a swipe at the Santa Barbara news media covering the fire ― which published information about the evacuation zone before the county was able ― for prioritizing industry competition over accurate reporting, though he did not cite any actual errors.
The public communications snafu echoed similar issues faced by the county during other recent disasters. In the midst of the Thomas Fire, the OEM sparked mass anxiety after it sent a 2:19 a.m. WEA alert that mistakenly told every Santa Barbara resident to “Evacuate Now” when the order was only meant for the area north of Carpinteria. During the 1/9 Debris Flow that claimed 23 lives, the Sheriff’s Office and OEM issued safety warnings and evacuation orders with confusing language and conflicting instructions, the early results of an ongoing study have revealed. The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury is now reportedly investigating those incidents and others.