Alerts Reached Few in Sonoma County in Early Hours of Wine Country Fires

January 05, 2018

San Francisco Chronicle
By Joaquin Palomino

As out-of-control flames moved into residential neighborhoods in the middle of the night in October, Sonoma County turned to a relatively new alert system to contact people in danger.

The thousands of warning calls made, however, mostly went unheard, a Chronicle review of recently released data shows.

 During the first five hours of the wildfires that started late Oct. 8, when many were still unaware of the unfolding tragedy, Sonoma County placed nearly 50,000 calls to cell and landline phones issuing evacuation orders. Only 15 percent of those calls were answered, leaving some residents with little notice of the rapidly spreading conflagration.

In certain areas decimated by the blazes, an even smaller percentage of alerts were received.

As fires burned into the picturesque town of Kenwood, officials sent 770 recorded phone calls recommending people flee the area. Only 36 of those calls were picked up, adding to lingering questions about whether more could have been done to warn people in the fire’s path.

More than one-third of Kenwood, known for its wineries and resorts, was charred by the Nuns Fire. Across Sonoma County, 24 people died and thousands of structures were destroyed, making the firestorm one of the most devastating in California history.

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