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California plans new emergency alert guidelines during disasters

More than 100 people died in Northern California wildfires the last two years. A lack of warning contributed to the high death toll.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California's state emergency agency plans to release new guidelines as soon as this week aimed at reducing problems with emergency alerts during disasters.

More than a hundred people died in Northern California wildfires in 2017 and 2018, with many survivors complaining that they had little or no warning that they needed to evacuate.

RELATED: 'The plan was out the window': How the Camp Fire became California’s deadliest

In the case of the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people in Butte County, ABC10 found that some people debated whether to evacuate for hours after their homes had been placed under evacuation orders because those orders never reached them.

“She didn’t want to die and I knew it was bad. She don't [sic] realize it's gonna be bad. She was hiding in her house,” said Christina Taft, whose mother Vicky Taft died in the fire.

The mother and daughter fought over whether they should go. Christina ran for her life. Vicky stayed. When they parted, the town of Paradise had been under evacuation orders for two hours, but neither of them knew it.

"If I had stayed, she'd probably be alive now," Christina said.

The only form of electronic warnings issued by Butte County the day of the fire failed to reach many of the people who'd signed up for them. The county never activated broadcast and wireless alerts that could have reached masses of people on mobile phones, radio, and television stations.

Those systems are maintained by the federal government and available to rescuers nationwide. Sonoma County leaders took criticism for failing to use them as well during the 2017 North Bay fires.

Speaking to a packed ballroom, Wednesday, at Sacramento State University, the state emergency chief said his agency will issue new guidelines for emergency alerts as soon as this week.

"Without question I'm concerned about the lack of use [of mobile and broadcast alerts,]" said Cal OES director Mark Ghilarducci. "It's exactly why the guidelines are being put in place so that all the counties are going to be issuing alert warnings in a timely fashion. They're going to be utilizing the systems that we recommend in the guidelines."

RELATED: California Wildfires: The New Normal

Many local governments have been rethinking their own emergency plans after the Camp Fire, which destroyed the Town of Paradise in a day. The town and county found themselves overwhelmed and outmatched by the size and speed of the fire.

Fire scientists say the same kind of "perfect storm" that blanketed Paradise in embers could destroy an entire town again. Hundreds of communities in California are at risk if a fire starts in the right conditions.

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