As the McKinney fire barreled up the Klamath River in the last week, Billy Simms received an alert that told him it was time to get out.
It wasn’t from an announcement by Siskiyou County officials or a text message from the emergency alert system they run — he got no such notice. Billy’s warning came from the sky, in the form of golf ball-sized embers.
“I’ve never been more scared,” Simms, 65, said. “And I don’t get scared.”
The danger from the supercharged fire that quickly overtook his house and almost 90 others – while claiming the lives of four people near the California-Oregon state line – cast a fresh spotlight on the evacuation systems in place to alert people of the imminent need to flee their homes. Many people interviewed in and around the fire zone last week said they did not receive alerts despite signing up for them, or never understood they needed to sign up.
In killing more people in one day than all of California’s fires last year, the firestorm also highlighted the increasingly perilous line that many residents of many Northern California counties stand astride, between picturesque life in the state’s forests and a growing potential for tragic disaster amid drought and climate change.
While a comprehensive review of the performance of Siskiyou County’s system must wait until after the fire is brought under control, shortcomings in evacuation warnings are nothing new to California, especially in the last five to 10 years. During the deadly 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, the same emergency alert mechanism used during the McKinney fire – an opt-in system called CodeRED – suffered several failures. Messages did not arrive as mobile phone networks became overloaded or damaged. Other snafus occurred in recent deadly blazes in Sonoma and Santa Cruz counties.
“These are older systems that have been kind of developed piecemeal, over the last 20-30 years,” said Christopher Godley, Sonoma County’s director of emergency management. “Each one of these technologies is designed to use a different communication system — and none of them actually perform as advertised.”
In turn, at-risk counties like Sonoma and Butte have poured considerable time and funds into improving these systems, hiring full-time staff dedicated to making improvements, training workers and deploying every alert system available during an emergency – the county’s own opt-in alert system, NOAA weather radios, blaring Hi-Low sirens from public safety vehicles and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Wireless Emergency Alert, which pings cell phones in specific areas.
But the challenges faced during the McKinney fire in the rugged Klamath National Forest – a place where privacy and a go-it-alone spirit pervade almost every facet of life – complicated the already-complex task of evacuating such a remote community.
“Most of us out in Northern California – they call it Jefferson County – are there for a reason: Leave us alone,” Simms said, adding that even if he had received an order to leave, he probably would have ignored it.
The banks of the Klamath River are home to a community of retirees, former Forest Service firefighters and off-the-grid survivalists, some of whom have owned land up here for generations. It’s a place revered for its fishing and hunting opportunities, where county judges, retired lawyers and illegal marijuana grows all share the same densely-forested canyon carved by the Klamath River, near Highway 96.
But even for a county well-accustomed to a hot and smoky fire season, fire officials say this blaze was unusual. The fire needed less than 48 hours to consume 50,000 acres, thanks in part to a historic drought that has left the region’s timber with even less moisture than commercially-sold kiln-dried lumber.
The circumstances surrounding the four lives claimed by the fire remain vague.
Two people burned to death together at the end of their driveway when their vehicle became trapped on a small embankment just feet away from their front gate, said Siskiyou County Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue. The gate was never opened, and there were signs that it had been hit by a vehicle trying to leave the property along Doggett Creek Road.
Another person had been contacted by emergency personnel as the fire approached, but refused to leave and perished, LaRue said. Little is known about the fourth person killed in the blaze. The victims’ names are expected to be released next week.
Siskiyou County officials said Wednesday that they did not yet know whether any of the people who died had received evacuation notices through the CodeRED system.
Officials also said they couldn’t immediately determine how many residents actually received the calls and texts the CodeRED system issued during the first two days of the fire. The county plans to review that once the fire is under greater control, said Bryan Schenone, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Services.
Some people, like Simms, said they either hadn’t heard of CodeRED or didn’t know they had to sign up to receive alerts on their cell phones. Landlines are already registered in the county’s alert system, county officials say.
Others reported never getting a text, despite asking for one.
The first CodeRED text that Stephanie Mason, 58, received from the county arrived on Wednesday, days after she was placed under an evacuation warning in Yreka. It was unsettling that no messages arrived sooner, she said, especially considering a test message in June arrived without any issues.
No alert came to the attention of Patty Grantham, a Yreka resident who retired last year from her job as the Klamath National Forest supervisor. She spent much of her time at work in the years before retirement encouraging people to sign up for the emergency messages.
“The magic’s always happened, so this is really strange,” Grantham said. She called it “imperative” that the system always work. “These conditions where fires can just spread incredibly fast.”
Schenone said he is not aware of any unusual issues with the county’s CodeRED system during the blaze. Still, he framed inconsistencies in the text-message alerts as unsurprising – citing a test of the system in June, when 86% of the messages sent out were successfully delivered. He was uncertain why the remaining 14% failed to reach their intended recipients.
“There is no end-all system,” Schenone said.
Following the 2017 Tubbs Fire, which killed 24 people, Sonoma County officials took a hard look at their emergency alert system and made several changes, including hiring more staff to routinely test the system and ensure it worked properly, Godley said.
Even so, he said, the alerts won’t reach every resident, 100% of the time.
“What I tell my community is that we will try to warn you, but I’m not guaranteeing it,” Godley said.
“So that’s when it really comes down to you being connected with your environment and your community,” he added.
Judy Donley, 55, said she doubts a better electronic messaging system would have helped last week as the fire raged.
The flames approached with such speed that she barely had time to gather her relatives in her Chevy Suburban and hit the gas. Embers pocked her legs with singe marks and she lost hair on her arms from the flames.
“It blew past everything, right into our faces, within seconds,” Donley said. “Firefighters were knocking people into cars, man. If a car was moving and somebody was standing there, they were pushing them in there.”
“It’s good they were doing it because anybody who was left there after we pulled out was dead.”