SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The deadliest wildfire in California history did not prompt local authorities to blast out alerts via cell phones, TV, and radio stations. Neither did the wine country fires the year before.
In 2019, California state leaders are pushing local leaders in the counties of the state to plan in advance to use these wide-reaching alerts, hoping to prevent future fires from growing even deadlier.
"I'm relatively confident that by this fire season all the counties will have those protocols implemented in new procedures and be ready to go," State Emergency Chief Mark Ghilarducci told ABC10 Monday.
Ghilarducci heads CalOES, the state's emergency services agency, which published a set of guidelines this year aimed at helping counties to do better.
"Do not wait to evacuate," Ghilarducci said in a press conference about the oncoming fire season. "If told to evacuate, do so."
The 2018 Camp Fire killed a record 85 people when high winds dropped embers onto the town of Paradise and surrounding neighborhoods. The fire destroyed nearly every building in the community of some 40,000 people.
The vast majority of those killed were found dead in their homes. Some couldn't evacuate on their own due to health reasons, but others were simply unaware of the danger.
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In the years before the Camp Fire, local leaders had instructed people to wait for evacuation orders to be called. Some survivors of the Camp Fire debated with loved ones about whether to leave that day, oblivious to evacuation orders issued over emergency radios and on Twitter.
Even if local leaders make better use of mobile and broadcast alerts, people shouldn't rely on them to work every time. In the wake of the staggering damage blamed on power utility PG&E, electric companies are preparing to shut off service more frequently to prevent fire danger.
Ghilarducci said many cellular towers lack backup batteries or generators to keep functioning during power outages, which can last for days during safety shutoffs because power companies have to inspect lines for damage before turning the power back on.
Firefighters tend to offer grim predictions for oncoming fire season no matter how the winter before went: Drier winters increase the danger of high-altitude forest fires because trees haven't been able to soak up moisture, while wetter winters cause grass to grow taller before it dries out at lower elevations.
But the news is bad high and low after the wet winter between 2018 and 2019. Not only do we have a larger crop of grass at low elevation already burning in some parts of the state, but we also have a massive tree die-off in the mountains from the stress put on trees by years of drought and bark beetles.
"[We have] 147 million dead trees in the Sierra. There isn't any amount of rain that is gonna bring back those dead trees," said CAL FIRE Chief Thom Porter. "They're gonna be dead. And they are going to stand, fall, decompose, over the next several decades if they don't burn up in the meantime."
While some politicians try to paint California's wildfire crisis as a manifestation of climate change or one of poor forest management, fire scientists say it's really both. A warmer climate leads to more hot, dry days when fires can grow huge. And the forests are also overgrown due to more than a century of total fire suppression.
It will take decades to thin out the tens of millions of acres of forest that need it in California.
In the meantime, firefighters say the spring is a great time to do some work on your property to make it safer from fire. You can call your local fire agency for an inspection or use CAL FIRE's guide to help you choose how best to improve the fire safety of your home.
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