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Mar 10, 2018

Warning system down: California’s deadliest fires

Co-produced with PRX Logo

It used to be that there was a discrete wildfire season, a period of time where fire risk was highest. Throughout the country, that season is getting longer, and in many places now, wildfire season is happening year-round. Fires are getting bigger, and they’re burning hotter.

Last October, more than 170 wildfires ripped across Northern California, burning more than 9,000 buildings, causing millions in damage and killing 44 people. It was the deadliest fire incident in the state’s history.

This week’s episode is a partnership with KQED in San Francisco. KQED reporters Marisa Lagos, Sukey Lewis and Lisa Pickoff-White obtained thousands of 911 calls and dispatch recordings, and together we reconstruct the first hours of those fires. Starting from the night of Oct. 8, 2017, we examine the decisions that were made and the delays in evacuation warnings that may have contributed to more deaths.

High winds and downed power lines kick up several small blazes across the state. Power surges then extend those problems, crippling more and more of the power grid and also sparking additional fires. When large fires eventually break out, firefighters are spread thin attending to multiple small blazes. Fueled by high winds, those large fires quickly grow out of control.

Meanwhile, many county agencies had different terms and protocols for issuing warnings. A series of 911 calls, acquired by KQED, show in stark detail how quickly critical procedures broke down. Some evacuation orders hit landlines, which only about half of Americans use; others were seriously delayed. Residents in counties such as Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino were ambushed by walls of flame, and dozens didn’t make it out alive.

Dig Deeper

Read: ‘My world was burning’: The North Bay fires and what went wrong

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:13:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. On the night of Sunday, October 8th, the Northern California hills are parched after a long summer. A hot, dry wind is blowing. A woman in Sonoma's Wine Country calls 9-1-1.
Speaker 1: What's the address of the emergency?
Speaker 2: Hi. We need fire engines out here immediately. I mean, we needed them out here an hour ago.
Speaker 1: Okay. Ma'am, are people are [crosstalk 00:00:30]
Al Letson: Thousands of people are in the path of this wildfire.
Speaker 1: Do you know where the fire [inaudible 00:00:33]?
Speaker 2: Yes. I had to drive out because I would've died if I stayed.
Speaker 1: How big is the fire? Do you know?
Speaker 2: How big is the fire? Huge, acres.
Speaker 1: Okay.
Speaker 2: It's hundreds of acres.
Speaker 1: Okay. Ma'am, ma'am, listen. I know-
Speaker 2: [crosstalk 00:00:48] Nobody's been warned about this.
Al Letson: These would become the deadliest wildfires in California's history. 44 people would die. For weeks, fires burned across eight counties, including Napa, famous for its vineyards. On the night the fires start, CAL FIRE, the state agency that responds to wildfires, gets call after call.
Analee Burlew: All night. I mean, it was unbelievable. I mean, that is really the sound that I remember, is just the phones did not stop ringing. The calls did not stop coming for help.
Al Letson: Unit chief, Analee Burlew, supervises CAL FIRE's Regional Command Center in Napa Valley. It's basically her war room. It smells of coffee and sweat. Two dispatchers answer the phones as fast as they can. They consult a giant map of Northern California pinned to the wall dotted with magnets. Purple ones stand for medical units, yellow for bulldozers, small red ones for engines, and big red arrows for fire. They deploy these resources using a system that originated in California, one called Mutual Aid.
Analee Burlew: Sonoma runs out of resources. What do they do? They call their neighboring county, Napa County, and ask for them to help, and Napa County would ordinarily say, "Sure, we'd love to come help you," and sends their resources. That's the normal thing that happens.
Al Letson: Burlew believed the state's Mutual Aid system would be able to handle whatever nature threw at it but, like the floods in Houston and the hurricanes in Florida and Puerto Rico, climate change has changed the game, making weather events more extreme across the country. So, while emergency responders put their lives on the line, are the systems prepared to handle disasters of this magnitude? That's what reports Lisa Pickoff-White, Sukey Lewis, and Marisa Lagos of KQED in San Francisco wanted to find out. After listening to thousands of 9-1-1 calls and dispatch recordings, and talking to dozens of first responders and state officials, and people who barely escaped with their lives, they reconstruct what happened the night the fires broke out. Marisa starts us off in the hills above Sonoma County's biggest city, Santa Rosa.
Marisa Lagos: Greg and Christina Wilson spend October 8th puttering around their house. It's close to coffee shops and grocery stores, but from here, all you see are treetops and grassy hillsides.
Christina W.: On Sundays, we hang out at home. I'm always working, so I was probably doing work and watching football, whatever.
Marisa Lagos: They're in their early 50s. She's a mortgage advisor. He's a lawyer. They have a two-year-old dog, a Shih Tzu names Maximus, Max for short. They live in a tight-knit neighborhood up on a hill where neighbors take time to chat, and after years of work remodeling, the house finally felt fully theirs.
Christina W.: It feels like you're just in this serene setting so far away. This was like our dream.
Marisa Lagos: On that Sunday, Christina stands in her new, bright kitchen, looking out of the windows.
Christina W.: It was a lot windier than normal, and it was very warm. It was a warm day.
Marisa Lagos: Christina doesn't think much of the wind, but what she doesn't realize is that wind will soon bring fire to her doorstep. Inside the CAL FIRE war room, they're worried that something like that could happen. Sukey takes us there, where officials are already on standby.
Speaker 3: I can feel the flames at the bottom.
Speaker 4: I just walked to the door [crosstalk 00:04:20]
Sukey Lewis: Firefighters are ready to mobilize because The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning, the highest alert for fire danger.
Speaker 5: [crosstalk 00:04:28] just a moment. Hello? [crosstalk 00:04:30]
Sukey Lewis: Then, around 7:30 in the evening, 9-1-1 dispatchers get a concerning call.

 

Speaker 6: Fire and medical dispatch.

 

Connie: Hey, it's Connie. I'm transferring a caller who's reporting, it sounds like a power line that was arching.

 

Speaker 6: Okay. Sir?

 

Speaker 7: Yes.

 

Speaker 6: Go ahead. What is the address of the emergency?

 

Sukey Lewis: The man tells the dispatcher that winds knocked a power line into a tree.

 

Speaker 7: [crosstalk 00:04:51] and it kind of blew out, but there were a lot of sparks, and this is a super high fire danger area, so ... But the power lines were definitely emitting sparks.

 

Speaker 6: [crosstalk 00:05:00] Okay.

 

Speaker 7: What's that?

 

Speaker 6: Yeah. Okay.

 

Sukey Lewis: The dispatcher says someone is on the way, then makes this a top priority. She consults a computer screen to send the nearest engine out to respond, but the wind keeps picking up. About 20 minutes later, a woman dials 9-1-1 to report a transformer blowing, miles away.

 

Speaker 8: [crosstalk 00:05:22] I'm sorry. Tell me again what happened.

 

Speaker 9: Well, it looked like it was a big firework that went off, by its looks. I'm pretty sure it's a transformer.

 

Speaker 8: All right. We do have the fire department on the way. Stay safe and out of [inaudible 00:05:35]

 

Sukey Lewis: What's happening here is that high winds are knocking down power lines. These send out sparks, starting little fires. Then as lines go down, the electricity needs to go somewhere, so it gets redistributed. This overloads other lines, creating power surges. Transformers explode, taking down more of the electrical grid.

 

Speaker 10: [crosstalk 00:05:57] power lines are down. Request [inaudible 00:05:59] in about 20 minutes.

 

Sukey Lewis: As CAL FIRE gets these reports, they contact PG&E, the local utility company, and together, they have the ability to do a few things. The utility can send out linemen to deal with individual incidents, or shut down power remotely, or a combination of both.

 

Speaker 10: [crosstalk 00:06:19] but due to power lines, the northbound shoulder's going to be on fire until PG&E can secure power for us.

 

Sukey Lewis: On that night, CAL FIRE and PG&E go by procedure, dealing with these incidents one by one, relying on linemen. They can't keep up.

 

Speaker 10: Information, we have multiple 9-1-1s ringing, and not being able to answer.

 

Sukey Lewis: This is when you can first hear things getting out of control. It's like a game of Whack-A-Mole. CAL FIRE's map is getting crowded. They're running out of people to send, even as new fires break out.

 

Speaker 11: To the point where CAL FIRE told us they've got no more resources, can't send ... to anybody.

 

Speaker 12: Oh, okay. So ...

 

Sukey Lewis: With no one to send to put all these small fires, two blazes explode almost simultaneously, about 30 miles apart. In the forested hills of Sonoma County, gusts of wind are sweeping up burning tree branches and debris and hurling these embers miles through the air. The blaze starts jumping from one mountain peak to another, leapfrogging valleys, racing through Napa vineyards, and devouring homes across both counties, and it's now rushing toward the city of Santa Rosa, home to 175,000 people.

 

Marisa Lagos: And for firefighters, it's becoming clear, these fires they're facing are of a different order.

 

Jeff Hogue: Multiple structures involved.

 

Marisa Lagos: CAL FIRE captain, Jeff Hogue, is in the middle of all of this. He's like the voice of God to his troops. All night long, firefighters hear him on the radio, taking their calls and coordinating their response. From the CAL FIRE war room, Hogue sends out a reminder, crackling over the radio.

 

Jeff Hogue: The priority of the unit is the safety of the public, the rescue, as well as safety of the rescuer. Do what you can.

 

Marisa Lagos: Safety for the public, safety for the rescuer, do what you can.

 

Sukey Lewis: What that means is putting out fires isn't the priority anymore. For firefighters, the singular focus is saving human lives, including their own. At 10:30, CAL FIRE starts calling local law enforcement agencies in Napa and Sonoma to initiate evacuations.

 

Marisa Lagos: In this game of telephone, you can hear a lot go wrong.

 

Michelle: Hi. It's Michelle.

 

Speaker 13: Hey. I need a versus 9-1-1 done.

 

Michelle: Okay.

 

Speaker 13: So, CAL FIRE needs it for the Calistoga area, mandatory evacuations.

 

Sukey Lewis: This CAL FIRE employee is asking a Napa operator for a reverse 9-1-1. That's an evacuation alert that can target specific neighborhoods, warning people fire is approaching. It calls home phones, but only about half of Americans have landlines these days.

 

Speaker 13: Copy. We'll advise CAL FIRE. Okay. I'm sorry. What's your question?

 

Michelle: Okay. I see the reverse 9-1-1. Are you meaning Nixle, or ...

 

Speaker 13: I need you guys to send out a reverse 9-1-1 so we can tell them to evacuate.

 

Michelle: Okay. I'm sorry. I'm not familiar with what a reverse 9-1-1 is. I'm sorry. [crosstalk 00:09:28]

 

Sukey Lewis: This is another one of those places where you can hear the system breaking down. The operator doesn't even know what CAL FIRE is talking about, but that's actually because each county in California, there are 58, uses different technologies with different names to alert people. To CAL FIRE, it's reverse 9-1-1. To Napa, it's called Nixle.

 

Michelle: I think it's just Nixle.

 

Speaker 13: Okay.

 

Michelle: If it's going out to the public and everyone.

 

Speaker 13: Yeah, it needs to go to all their phones, landline and everything, mandatory-

 

Michelle: Oh, landlines. Got it.

 

Speaker 13: ... evacuation, yeah.

 

Sukey Lewis: In this call, CAL FIRE is requesting an evacuation order, but it still takes an hour before law enforcement officials in Napa issue text alerts to the public. They won't call people on their landlines until the next day. Over the course of the night, delay and confusion happen again and again.

 

Marisa Lagos: Right, and it didn't just happen in Napa. Back at the home of Christina and Greg Wilson, the phone rings around 10:00 at night, but it's not Sonoma County officials calling.

 

Christina W.: Yeah, I got a phone call around 10:00 from one of my friends who lives about three miles away, and she's like, "I see fire in the distance, and it looks like it's coming really close."

 

Marisa Lagos: They look out the window and can see a faint glow of fire. Christina's husband Greg chats with the neighbors and prepares to leave. Just in case, they fill two cars with valuables, a new painting, dog treats for Max. All the while, that fire in the distance fueled by high winds is burning much closer. Soon, it's right at the end of their street.

 

Christina W.: Then all of a sudden, it was just coming on so close that everybody at the same time decided to leave.

 

Marisa Lagos: They get in their cars and start driving. Their neighbors are all trying to get out, too, and the narrow road is clogged with traffic. Flames surround them.

 

Christina W.: I just thought, let's turn around.

 

Marisa Lagos: The fire keeps growing as they head back home, and when they get there, their house is on fire, too. So, they go to the one place where the flames can't reach.

 

Christina W.: So, Greg said, "Let's just get in the pool," and it made sense because it just did.

 

Marisa Lagos: In their swimming pool, Christina and Greg are safe from the flames, but not the smoke or the air, superheated to an excess of a thousand degrees Fahrenheit.

 

Greg Wilson: There was such a superheated air that trying to breathe in was so hard.

 

Marisa Lagos: That air is so hot, it consumes the oxygen before they can catch a breath. It burns their lungs, and it's why Greg's voice sounds so hoarse. Greg holds Maximus, their dog. He squeezes Christina's hand as they dive under the water.

 

Greg Wilson: Really, just those first 20 minutes, just diving down, coming up, sometimes not really getting any air at all, but just saying, "Okay, I gotta go down again."

 

Marisa Lagos: They plunge into the freezing cold water again and again, just to get a break from the blaze. The solar panels bubble and burst. Greg watches as their dream home turns to ash. The fire's creating its own weather, whipping debris all over the place. Flying embers hit Maximus in the eye.

 

Greg Wilson: And right then it's like you have time to hug each other and say, "This could be it, honey," and then I know we did it a couple more times.

 

Christina W.: It meant the world because, oh, my god, because we were all together.

 

Greg Wilson: And it was [inaudible 00:12:54]. We didn't leave because I couldn't bear the thought of separating. If we drove down and one of us made it and one of us didn't, I'd rather us be together.

 

  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:13:04]
  Section 2 of 3          [00:13:00 - 00:26:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Greg Wilson: One of us made it and one of us didn't. I'd rather us be together.

 

Christina W.: I didn't even think about ... I just didn't think we would have a chance to survive.

 

Marisa Lagos: It's at this point that authorities send out the first evacuation orders. This call went out at 11:30 p.m.

 

Speaker 14: Attention, Sonoma County residence, there is a large fire off Mark West Springs Road. There are several homes engulfed in flames. We are recommending that you prepare to evacuate your homes and go to safe areas at this point.

 

Marisa Lagos: That call goes out as the Wilsons are huddling together in the water. Their cellphones on the side of the pool have melted into a pile of metal and splintered glass.

 

Al Letson: Only about 1,200 people who live in the hills above Santa Rosa receive that initial evacuation call. As the fire moves out of the wild lands, racing towards densely populated neighborhoods, most people are asleep in their beds and have no idea what's coming.

 

When we come back, Sukey and Marisa take us into the neighborhoods where people are waking up to a wall of flames. This is Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

We're looking at the fires that swept through Northern California's wine country last fall. In all, 44 people lost their lives in the deadliest fires in state history. 172 different blazes broke out across hundreds of miles of Northern California in an area the size of Maryland and Delaware combined. KQED reporters Lisa Pickoff-White, Marisa Lagos and Sukey Lewis are taking us through that first night when crucial decisions were made.

 

We join Sukey in the hills above the city of Santa Rosa where a sheriff's deputy is stumbling through the dark, choking on smoke, trying to get residents to safety.

 

speaker 7: Sheriff's office!

 

Sukey Lewis: This is audio from a sheriff deputy's body cam. In the dark, two officers pound on doors, yelling at people to get out.

 

speaker 7: Screw your shoe! Come on!

 

speaker 10: She's disabled.

 

Sukey Lewis: They come across a woman who can't walk.

 

speaker 10: Let me get her feet. Let me get her feet.

 

Sukey Lewis: They carry her out of her house to their squad car by her arms and legs.

 

speaker 7: Watch your leg! Watch your leg! Watch your leg!

 

Watch your leg! Watch your leg! Watch your leg!

 

Sukey Lewis: As the deputy drives out, he can barely see out of his windshield. It's just smoke and embers.

 

speaker 7: Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Drive! Go!

 

Sukey Lewis: Rescuers will not get to every door. On this night, at least eight people will end up dying along this road.

 

At another point in the video, just around midnight, the officer gets on the radio to ask about a neighborhood to the west.

 

speaker 7: We got to keep pushing the evacuations as far west as we can.

 

Sukey Lewis: He's telling dispatchers they need to expand evacuations, pushing towards a neighborhood in Santa Rosa called Fountain Grove.

 

speaker 7: We got to be ready to evacuate all the way to 101 in my mind.

 

Sukey Lewis: At 1:00 a.m., this man calls to report a winery in Fountain Grove is on fire.

 

Speaker 17: The whole fucking winery. I'm talking about, I'm watching it right now. It's burning right towards us.

 

Speaker 18: Sir ... Okay, I need you to leave the area then.

 

Sukey Lewis: Despite many calls like this, it would be another hour, nearly 2:00 a.m. before authorities start calling people in Fountain Grove and telling them to evacuate. Then the fire rips across Highway 101, a six-lane freeway that runs through the middle of the city. Residents on the other side of that freeway in Coffee Park, a dense neighborhood well within Santa Rosa city proper, wake up to flames in the middle of the night.

 

Speaker 19: The field is on fire. Two of them. [inaudible 00:17:50]

 

Speaker 20: Okay. Ma'am ... Ma'am, I need you to pause just a moment.

 

Speaker 19: Okay.

 

Speaker 20: I know you're scared. I'm sorry I have to be short with you, we just have over 50 fires going on right now.

 

Sukey Lewis: This fire has been headed towards their homes for four hours, but as Marisa and I found out, few people here get alerts of any kind.

 

Marisa Lagos: Sonoma officials could have notified every single person with a cellphone in that area through the same kind of system that takes over your phone with those loud amber alerts, but that wasn't their procedure. Instead, they chose to send another type of alert to specific areas that reached fewer people. They did this in two ways, through text and emails, using a system that people have to sign up for ahead of time. The county doesn't know how many people got those warnings because it doesn't track that.

 

Speaker 21: The following is a message from the Santa Rosa Emergency Operation Center ...

 

Marisa Lagos: They also made calls to people's landlines, but only a third of those got through on the first try.

 

Speaker 21: Evacuate immediately. There's a ...

 

Marisa Lagos: CAL FIRE Battalion Chief, Jonathan Cox, says with fires moving a hundred miles a minute, chewing through phone lines and downing cellphone towers, officials couldn't keep up.

 

Jonathan Cox: It was one of those instances where the disaster was moving faster than literally people could communicate.

 

Marisa Lagos: Up in the hills above Santa Rosa, the massive flame front has passed, leaving Greg and Christina Wilson, the couple who hid in their swimming pool, wet and freezing, their lungs burnt.

 

Christina W.: I thought we would die.

 

Marisa Lagos: Exhausted, and no longer able to support herself, Christina lies on a narrow concrete ledge. The deck around her burned away hours ago.

 

Greg Wilson: Your kind of in survival mode. My brain [isn't 00:19:38] thinking of anything else, it's just watching that house burn. We're just hugging each other on the ground.

 

Marisa Lagos: Then Greg hears something.

 

Greg Wilson: This low wail of a siren. It's just this low quiet. I'm like, "Honey, I think this thing's getting closer." At that point, I just I got up and I'm talking like this but I'm just waving, screaming, "Hey!"

 

Marisa Lagos: The Wilsons are saved by chance, one of their neighbors managed to call a cop she was dating who got CAL FIRE to save them. Rescuers drive the Wilsons to a hospital.

 

Greg Wilson: The last thing I remember, Christina was lying on a gurney, I was lying on a gurney with Max and there was a nurse there saying, "Okay, I'm going to take Maximus." Then they said, "We're going to knock you out."

 

Marisa Lagos: Greg and Christina, covered in burns, are put into a medically induced coma. Nurses have to move them to another facility because even the hospital catches fire. Their dog, Max, is alive, but is nearly blind.

 

Greg Wilson: I have to say I'm very impressed with my wife, she didn't panic at all. I mean, the only thing you're worried about is her.

 

Christina W.: You just kind of do what you do to survive, and we wanted to live.

 

Marisa Lagos: At this point, firefighters still aren't even thinking about putting out blazes. They're just trying to save as many people as they can, but there are only so many firefighters; and that mutual aid system, where neighboring counties tap each other when they need help, CAL FIRE's Anna Lee-Berlou says, "It's breaking."

 

Anna L.: Sonoma's depleted, they have a major fire going. They call Napa, Napa has a major fire going. They don't have any resources to send. They call Lake, Lack County is depleted. They have a major fire going. They call their closest neighbor, Mendocino. Mendocino has a major fire going. They don't have any resources to send.

 

Marisa Lagos: Berlou doesn't have anyone left to draw from, and that map in here war room, there are so many fires she's all out of magnets. She's using Post-It notes instead. The nearest additional firefighters are hours away.

 

Anna L.: All these counties that are touching each other ... because that's where the weather event went through, right? ... are all impacted with their own disaster.

 

Marisa Lagos: That weather event means more counties are getting hit by hurricane force gusts of up to 80 miles per hour. People are continuing to call 911 reporting electrical problems, surging power lines and explosions; and they're not just sparking new fires, they're preventing first responders from doing their job because they're not supposed to touch or even drive over a power line until electrical workers can guarantee the line is dead.

 

We ask unit chief Berlou why CAL FIRE didn't consider asking the utility to shut down the power grid.

 

Anna L.: That is not something that we have historically done.

 

Marisa Lagos: But CAL FIRE can do this. They do it in Southern California. CAL FIRE's Jonathan Cox says, "It's just not procedure in this part of the state."

 

Jonathan Cox: Our worlds that we operate in is very procedurally driven, policy and procedurally driven. Right? We're one cog here in the large California cog wheel.

 

Marisa Lagos: This decision may have proven critical as the fires spread north to Mendocino County.

 

Speaker 22: Vegetation fire. Power lines down.

 

Speaker 23: 18-22, I have two calls pending. One of them is power lines down on [Costa 00:23:18] Road.

 

Marisa Lagos: Remember that Highway 101 running through Santa Rosa? If you follow it 70 miles north, the towns start getting further apart. The farmlands more spaced out.

 

In the early morning hours, a woman in a small town called Redwood Valley finds herself surrounded by fire. She calls 911.

 

Speaker 24: Do I need to evacuate my house and to ...

 

Speaker 25: I don't know, ma'am. If it's that close to ...

 

Marisa Lagos: Throughout the night, this is a pattern. 911 operators can't give people clear directions on which way to flee. They tell them to shelter in place, to wait for a knock on the door, to drive through flames. Nobody seems to know what to do.

 

Speaker 24: I've been trying to call 911 for the last 15 minutes and nobody's answered.

 

Speaker 25: Ma'am, I understand. There's a lot of fires all over the county, so the best thing I can do is take whatever action you feel is necessary and appropriate. Okay?

 

Speaker 24: Okay. Could you tell me who do I call to find out how close and where ... what do I need to do?

 

Speaker 25: No one. No one. Ma'am, literally, there are multiple fires in the county right now. We're sending ...

 

Marisa Lagos: Just down the road from this caller, Redwood Valley Fire Chief, Brendan Turner, is directing his crews, trying to get residents to safety. He's pulled over at the bottom of a gated dirt driveway, making calls for more fire engines. The smoke billows around him, making it hard to see. Then someone walks out of the darkness toward him.

 

Brendan Turner: He said he needed help, so I got him over to the back of my patrol. At that point I was realizing that he had had significant burns to his hand as well as his face. I asked him his name. He kind of cocked his head to the side, which the ... "Brendan, why are you asking me this?" That's when I realized that I knew whoever this person was. When he told me his name, my heart just sank.

 

Marisa Lagos: His name is John Shepard. He tells Turner that he got separated from his wife and two teenage kids, they're still up there in the fire.

 

Brendan Turner: I know his family very well. I've known his mom. I grew up with him, know the whole family, and that was hard.

 

Marisa Lagos: In a town as small as Redwood Valley, everyone knows each other. For his firefighters, those aren't just three victims up on the hill, they are their friends and neighbors.

 

Brendan Turner: This was another one of those areas where I was extremely concerned for the safety of the responders also, because they were going to make it up that hill one way or the other.

 

Marisa Lagos: Turner has-

 

  Section 2 of 3          [00:13:00 - 00:26:04]
  Section 3 of 3          [00:26:00 - 00:36:37]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Brendan Turner: They were going to make it up that hill one way or the other.

 

Marisa Lagos: Turner has to make an impossible decision.

 

Brendan Turner: At one point, I had to kind of pull him back a little bit and say, "We have to wait until this passes a little bit before we get up there. We're not able to help other people if we become victims."

 

Marisa Lagos: As soon as the flames pass, Turner sends his firefighters up the hill. Among them, 23 year old [Garrett Johnson 00:26:26], who also knows the [Sheppard 00:26:26] family. Garrett finds the mom and her 17 year old daughter, [Kryssa 00:26:33].

 

Garrett Johnson: When we got up there, they were both conscious, alert, speaking with us, so I did have high hopes for them.

 

Marisa Lagos: While they wait for an ambulance to arrive, Johnson and the other firefighters dress their burns and give them oxygen. It's still too dark and smoky to get a helicopter onto the valley floor to airlift them out.

 

Garrett Johnson: The mother was slightly declining as we were taking her off the hill. From my assessment, I thought the daughter was the lesser of the two injuries. It turns out, I was wrong.

 

Marisa Lagos: The Sheppard parents survived with severe injuries, but Kryssa, an aspiring artist and a junior in high school, underwent multiple surgeries and ultimately died at a hospital. Her 14 year old brother [Ki 00:27:21], who loved wrestling and the San Francisco Giants, he didn't make it off the hill.

 

As the sun rose that morning over Redwood Valley, Chief Brendan Turner was high up on the west side of the valley.

 

Brendan Turner: I had a vantage point of basically the entire area on the valley floor that had burned and it was surreal. It was hard to imagine what I was seeing. Again, it's the community that a lot of us have called home for a long time and to witness that amount of devastation and still not know how many people we had missing. It wasn't ... Yeah, it was just ... It was gut wrenching to see that.

 

Marisa Lagos: The fires took a massive toll. In the end, 44 people lost their lives, hundreds were injured, and more than 9,000 buildings burned down. It would take three weeks to contain them. While the fires were still burning, people began asking hard questions. At this community meeting at Santa Rosa High School on October 19th, people get emotional. Nerves are still raw. Thousands of people are still evacuated from their homes and a woman asks the Santa Rosa Fire Chief why she wasn't warned about the fires.

 

Speaker 26: Why was there no notice at the start of the fires?

 

Speaker 27: It's important to know that it took a little bit of time to realize what was going on and there were alerts sent out. We had the EOC push out evacuation notices in the [inaudible 00:29:12] area.

 

Speaker 28: Bull-[inaudible 00:29:15].

 

Marisa Lagos: People wanted answers from authorities and we had questions too. While Sukey was still out in the field reporting on these fires, Lisa Pickoff-White and I started asking for public records. We wanted to get our hands on the 911 calls from that night and get a minute-by-minute sense of what was actually happening on the ground.

 

Lisa P.W.: What we found were that there were long gaps between when first responders called for evacuations on the ground and when those alerts actually were sent out to people in danger.

 

Marisa Lagos: We talked to Aaron Abbott. He's Executive Director of the Sonoma County Dispatch Center that was taking 911 calls that night. We asked him about those delays and whether they could've cost lives.

 

Aaron Abbott: We're sad about all the houses and lives lost as anybody, trust me, but ... Excuse me. What you have to say is it's not an individual issue or a decision, it's this is a system issue, a system. We as a system have to put this together right.

 

Lisa P.W.: There's no question that first responders acted heroically that night, but systems broke down. Systems that you count on in an emergency were insufficient.

 

Marisa Lagos: The three of us went to the man in charge of emergency response in California. His name is [Mark Ghilarducci 00:30:36] and he's head of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. Here's what he said when we asked what he thought the failures were that first night.

 

Mark G.: Look, under extreme conditions, massive wildfires, there's smoke, there's debris, there's a lot of activity that's going on, decisions are having to be made. Your premise is a little bit like, "Hey, what was the failure?" That's how you started this conversation off. "What was the failure?" Your pretense is already that there was a failure made. The truth of the matter is, is that there's a lot of cascading challenges to have to deal with these kind of events.

 

Marisa Lagos: Isn't that what your office is all about, situations that are not the norm? We're supposed to have a system that can handle or at least be somewhat prepared for an emergency, right?

 

Mark G.: Well, I would argue that the system did handle it and is prepared for emergencies. We've got the best system that exists in the world in our ability to respond to these kind of events.

 

Lisa P.W.: Ghilarducci didn't want to call them failures, but days after we spoke to him, his office issued a report confirming that in Sonoma County communication's systems broke down, staff were not properly trained, and that the county should've used wireless emergency alerts, those Amber Alerts that set off everyone's cellphones. However, when we spoke to Sonoma County officials, they told us that they were worried about using those alerts because of mass panic and clogged roads. Ghilarducci says, "Local officials tend to be overly conservative about warning people."

 

Mark G.: There's all these obstacles that they throw out in front of them. "Oh, it's going to cause panic. Oh, it's going to be traffic. Oh, it may not get to the exact streets we're talking about. It may actually be broader than we want to do." I think that you can't ... Again, you can't let perfect get in the way of good enough, I guess you could say.

 

Lisa P.W.: Officials are beginning to tackle many of the problems we uncovered through this investigation. There's state legislation pending that would create one standard for evacuation alerts throughout California, so if one agency asks another for a reverse 911, or a Nixle Alert, they'll know what they're talking about. The federal government is looking at improving Amber Alerts and dispatchers in Sonoma County are already being re-trained so that they know what to tell people who are trapped by fires. Cal Fire is still investigating the cause of these fires, but now PG&E says there's a new normal that climate change is forcing them to change the way they do things.

 

PG&E says, "Shutting down the electrical grid can cause its own problems, making it harder for first responders to communicate in an emergency, leaving key infrastructure in the dark, like traffic lights." The utility is working with state officials to consider powering down portions of the electrical grid ahead of extreme weather to stop fires from spreading, like the utilities in southern California already do. Residents here welcome these changes, but many are still mourning and have barely begun to rebuild their lives. Meanwhile, fire season is already here. It never ends.

 

Al Letson: KQED's Lisa Pickoff-White, Marisa Lagos, and Sukey Lewis are going to continue reporting on this crisis, and the decisions and delays that may have contributed to so many deaths. If you want to go deeper, check out KQED's new special on their podcast, The California Report Magazine, and an interview with Sukey on their new podcast, The Bay. Today we heard how the emergency response system broke down during these wildfires. On Wednesday, we're releasing a special podcast looking at another question, "What next?"

 

Speaker 29: They'll be allowed to rebuild and they're going to do it again, but that a fire will come again there.

 

Al Letson: Do you think it's crazy for them to rebuild there?

 

Speaker 29: Yeah, I do. At least the way they had it.

 

Al Letson: That's coming up Wednesday on a special podcast, check it out. Our show was edited by [Brett Myers 00:34:41]. Thanks to KQED's Sonya Hudson and Peter Arcuni for additional reporting on these stories. Our production manager, [Mawenda Hinojosa 00:34:48]. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim [Briggs 00:34:53] and Fernando, my man yo, [Aruta 00:34:55]. They had help from [Kat Shuknit 00:34:57]. Thanks to Dan [Burgrim 00:34:58] and Sleeping Giant Records for additional music in this episode. Acting CEO is [Krysta Scharfenberg 00:35:04].

 

Amy Pile's our Editor and Chief. Our Executive Producer's in Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Comorado 00:35:09] Lightning. Support for Reveal's provided by the Reeve and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathon Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Andy Donahue: Hi there, I'm Andy Donahue, Reveal's Managing Editor. We've spent a lot of time over the last year and a half investigating the new era of hate that's sweeping across America. It's one of our newsrooms' top priorities. Right now we're working hard on finishing up a new investigation, which we'll be rolling out soon. In the meantime, there's a way to keep up with our work. Each week our reporters put together an email newsletter with their latest findings, interesting trends, and recommended reads from other publications. It's called The Hate Report. Signing up for it is easy. Just text hate to 63735, we'll add you to the list. Again, text hate to 63735.

 

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