Brynn Parrott Chatfield saw the smoke rising above the pine trees near her home in Paradise, California. When she heard the trees blow up and saw the huge pieces of ash, she knew it was time to get out.
Chatfield hopped in her car and drove through fire and smoke to safety, a harrowing journey that she filmed from the driver’s seat.
“Heavenly Father, please help us. Please help us to be safe,” she pleaded in the video.
Though she managed to escape, she never did receive an emergency alert to her phone telling her to watch out for the oncoming fire.
Brad Weldon, also from Paradise, did get a phone alert. But he said it came as he was already fighting off the flames surrounding his home.
Their experiences reflect a widespread issue for residents in Paradise and surrounding Butte County: Many people did not receive emergency alert warnings, and some who did received them too late.
Instead, they learned of the danger not from authorities but through their own eyes and ears, or from concerned friends and family.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea defended the county’s use of the emergency alert system during the fire. He said the situation was “extraordinarily chaotic and rapidly moving” and so it took time for fire experts to get to the scene, determine the fire’s direction and warn the affected people — time they just didn’t have.
“There were notifications sent out, but as I said over and over again, this fire was moving so rapidly we couldn’t keep ahead of it,” Honea said.
Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said landline phones are automatically enrolled in the county’s alert system, but cell phones have to be opted in to get the alerts. She said they have conducted drives to get people to register, but she wasn’t sure how many residents signed up.
“I got a phone call, I got texts on my cell phone. My husband got a phone call on the landline,” she told CNN. “So that’s the kind of notification people would get. If they went outside they could see what was happening also.”
The fire spread too quickly
The questions over the use of the emergency alert system come as firefighters continue to battle the Camp Fire in Butte County.
The fire’s rapid spread through the town of Paradise and beyond left at least 56 people dead and destroyed thousands of homes and structures, making it the most destructive and deadliest blaze in state history.
On Wednesday, the Butte County sheriff published a list of more than a hundred people unaccounted for and still missing from the Camp Fire. The blaze, which has burned 140,000 acres, remains just 40% contained.
Honea said that, for now, Butte County would continue to focus on assisting CalFire on fighting the Camp Fire. Once the fire is contained, they will go back and look closer into the emergency alert system, he said.
“We’re getting a lot of requests and calls from people who want us to spend a lot of time going back and collecting data and there will be a time for that, but right now I need to focus on the fight in front of us,” Honea said.
As Honea noted, the speed of the fire took everyone by surprise and left residents of Paradise scrambling to escape in car and on foot.
The Camp Fire charred 20,000 acres last Thursday in less than 14 hours. Its most significant growth period was early Thursday afternoon, when it grew 10,000 acres in about 90 minutes — burning the equivalent of more than one football field every second during that time.
“We did our absolute best in terms of Amber-style alert, we used emergency mass notification system as well as our efforts to notify people when we’re in the communities. We employed that,” Honea said.
Honea offered several other explanations for why the alerts did not reach people in harm’s way.
He said the fire took place in a remote area where cell phone service may not be great. He also said that some people who received the warning may not have acted immediately to get out, and suggested that people may have been lulled into a false sense of security regarding fires.
“I don’t think it would be appropriate to draw the conclusion that because (bodies) were found in their house, you can automatically assume they were not notified,” he said. “It is possible that they were notified but they chose not to heed the warning and we have heard of stories like that.”
‘For the most part, our plan worked’
Mayor Jones said that the fire simply moved too quickly, especially compared to 2008’s devastating fire season.
“I mean, it just happened so fast. There wasn’t time to give anybody longer. In 2008, we had three hours between the first notice and the mandatory evacuation. We had three hours to pack up stuff,” she said.
This time, though? “We had no time at all. Maybe five minutes,” she added.
About 26,000 people live in Paradise, some 85 miles north of Sacramento. Jones estimated that about 80 to 90% of the town was destroyed.
Still, despite the issue with the alert system, she defended the evacuation plan, calling it “organized chaos.”
“It did take time to get everybody through just because so many people were evacuated at the same time,” she said. “But I think for the most part, our plan worked. If we hadn’t had that plan, it would have been awful.”
Last October, officials in Northern California faced similar criticism from residents who said they learned of the fire by the smell of smoke or noise from their pets rather than from an emergency alert.
At the time, Kelly Huston, the deputy director for California’s Office of Emergency Service, said alerts and warnings happen on a local level, not a state level.
“They decide what are the appropriate alerts for their population,” Houston said.