Bridge Fire, June 5, 2022 | Credit: Mike Eliason/S.B. County Fire

When I heard helicopters flying low over my house last Sunday evening, I didn’t worry until I smelled smoke. Then my phone rang twice in rapid succession, our family’s code for emergency.

“There is a fire near your house,” my daughter said. “Did you get an alert?”

“No,” I replied.

“We didn’t either, but Morgan’s mom got alerts, the fire is on your side of the 154 just above Foothill.”

The wind was blowing in the sort of violent gusts that always make me nervous, and it was blowing my way from the blaze. This could get bad fast. I checked KEYT, nothing. Nothing yet in the Independent either, but there was a mention in Noozhawk of a five- to 10-acre blaze, the Bridge Fire. I live less than two miles from where the fire started, and with our wildland vegetation already bone dry, it wouldn’t take long for embers to fly toward upper Stevens Park, right across the street.

The steady hum of helicopters coupled with fire truck horns was reassuring, but I wondered why the county’s emergency alert system had not reached me with a warning so I could prepare to leave if necessary. Fortunately, an hour later the emergency was over. Local fire crews had done a fantastic job and extinguished the flames in record time, containing the fire to under 10 acres. A miracle.

Miracles are great but relying on them is not my policy, so I checked the county’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) alert system to make sure I was still registered. Just to be sure I reentered all my information. In the interval I had heard from several friends. The pattern of alerts seemed random.

I called OEM to try and understand how the system works. JD Salcido took my call. “We got the fire contained very quickly so the evacuation zone was small, and we didn’t need to alert that many people,” he told me. “But we rely on cell towers to send out the alerts, and different carriers behave differently. Verizon alerts anyone within a 10-mile range of the emergency, but other carriers don’t all behave the same way.” The conversation left me confused so I decided to dig further. I mean, every telemarketer, politician, and dodgy loan company seems to be able to text us in spite of our best efforts to prevent it, so why could our local emergency system not do the same?

I posted a question on Nextdoor asking who had and had not received the alert. Some 250 comments later, I was left more worried than before.

•  People who were within close distance and downwind from the fire did not get alerts.
•  I could smell smoke being carried by strong winds but got no alert, though my neighbor did.
•  People who lived upwind from the fire and who were in no danger were frightened by messages that told them “LEAVE NOW” but didn’t tell them why they needed to go.
•  People who live nowhere near the fire got alerts (Montecito, Bel Air and Mesa neighborhood, etc…).
•  People who had not received initial alerts got alerts telling them the emergency was over.
•  People who have gotten tired of receiving alerts for emergencies that do not in any way relate to their address have removed themselves from the system (the “boy who cried wolf” effect).

The full thread can be viewed here. If you have time, it is rather enlightening:

I understand that nothing is perfect, but this is way below an acceptable level of performance for something that is a matter of life and death. Yes, the fire had been small and rapidly contained, due largely to the skill of the firefighters but also to a significant extent due to sheer luck.

The Bridge Fire started near a busy highway at a time when people were awake. It was reported almost immediately, and the ignition point was easily accessible. What if the fire had flared in the middle of the night in one of our community’s steep canyons, like the one across the street from my house, where large amounts of deadwood from the 2009 Jesusita fire still lie, now surrounded by dense, tinder dry brush? What if the wind had blown down canyon toward the San Roque neighborhood, or sideways toward Mission Canyon? Luck will not always be on our side, and having timely alerts reach the right people is going to make the difference between losing property and losing lives.

People died and 4,658 homes burnedwhen a similar scenario occurred in Santa Rosa, the Tubbs Fire. It could well happen here.

Some may disagree but I say something is not right with OEM’S emergency alert system, and I want to know what can be done to improve it. The first step to solving a problem is to admit that a problem exists, and based on the evidence, we need to do better. I lost a house in the Tea Fire in 2008, and my home suffered smoke and ash damage in the Jesusita Fire of 2009. A close friend had to fight insurance companies to repair extensive damage to her home twice in under 10 years. People lost their lives in the terrifying Montecito mudflow that followed the Thomas Fire. The next disaster is not a matter of if, only a matter of when.

Santa Barbara lies on a narrow coastal band hemmed in by steep hills covered in highly flammable chaparral. Many streets are winding and narrow. What makes this place so beautiful also makes it dangerous. Due to climate change and persistent drought, the danger will only keep increasing.

It is imperative that we put in place the best alert system currently available on the market, that staff be properly trained in how to use it, and that the community understand how it works. Regular alert drills may be needed so we can all be better prepared and familiar with the system. We also need to support and increase the fire departments’ efforts to reduce fuel load in our wildland interface.

Santa Barbara thankfully is not a community of climate change deniers. We have smarts, we have money, we have community members who love this place and care deeply about preserving it. The danger is real, and it is imminent. Let’s not accept good enough. Let’s all work together to face the threat with the seriousness it deserves.


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