Extreme Temperature Diary-November 15, 2018/ Topic: Response To California Fires…A New Warning System?

Thursday November 15th… Dear Diary. The main purpose of this ongoing post will be to track United States extreme or record temperatures related to climate change. Any reports I see of ETs will be listed below the main topic of the day. I’ll refer to extreme or record temperatures as ETs (not extraterrestrials)😊. 

Response To California Fires…A New Warning System?

Last night I had the privilege of partaking in a brainstorming session on social media for improving  warning systems in California to alert people of wildfires and constructing safe escape havens for local residents. Thanks all for their thoughts, which were much appreciated by all of those involved. As of today I’m seeing that 56 people died in Paradise, California with over 100 still missing. Could more people have been saved if a better warning system was in place or if souls better knew how to escape ? Of course!

Today I will try to summarize the discussion pointing out some nut and bolt concrete steps that could be implemented by local and federal governments with input from law enforcement. By no means am I an expert in warning dissemination, so I’d like this post to be very fluid, adding more communicated points with time. Also, it makes sense that people in fire hazard areas have a lot more input into how a better warning system can be constructed…not mainly from someone like me who resides in soggy Georgia. Today I will just play the part of the little old note taker. Sometime in the not so distant future I’d love to see some of the ideas communicated here implemented, saving lives. Beyond being interested in weather and climate, I’m definitely fulfilled knowing that some of my forecasting over the last 30+ years aided people and perhaps saved a life or two. Seeing a better fire warning system for California and other areas of the West coming out of the tragedy from this week would tickle me pink.

The first idea I saw was to start implementing “fire warnings” by the National Weather Service. These would act much like flash flood or tornado warnings giving those affected as much time as possible to respond. Most of those who died this week in the fires were not aware of impending doom, not  having enough time to react. One reason that tornado deaths have been going down over time is because weather technology via doppler radar and warning systems have been improving. We now have satellite fire sensing capability along with surface observations for wind that should alert and give forecasters enough time to issue a warning after red flag warnings (or fire watches) have been issued in the prior 24 hour period.

 

One thing, for sure, is to not have so many different watches, advisories or warnings being issued as to confuse the public. A system needs to be in place to first communicate awareness of potential fire danger, then if necessary a life threatening warning.

On the other hand, some people in the discussion were doubtful that any better warning system might have helped:

Daniel’s last point led to the idea of having residents either construct fire shelters on their property if they wished and/or designating some well built building to be a community safe haven where people can go to in a time when dry Santa Ana winds are howling with a high elevated fire threat. In the Midwest being aware when storm threats are elevated is now second nature. Students during tornado drills often practice by learning how to quickly protect themselves under desks.

What should happen with evacuation routes once large scale fire events are underway? Here was some of what I saw involving protection:

Obviously loners living well up in the hills could not go to any shelter and would either take their chances of not being affected by a fire or building their own underground shelter, much like those constructed for storms in the Plains. Perhaps a community shelter would have helped in the town of Paradise.

To add this evening if warnings are disseminated what would be the best way to get the public’s attention? After all, proverbially any tree that falls in the middle of a forest isn’t herd. The usual buzzer or alarm coming from weather radios? Emergency broadcasts on cell phones? Perhaps a network of sirens placed on electric poles? I’d think that all three suggestions might save a few lives. What might have helped is the point of constructing community warning sirens, blaring to alert residents of warnings.  I saw many comments on this:

People living across possible burn areas should know their best escape routes, particularly for children. Education via local law enforcement community outreach would be a big plus here.

As I pointed out I’ll be refining this post with time, adding more good advice and suggestions. Hopefully any ideas written here will help policy makers. At least I know that many professional people in the field of meteorology are thinking about these “low hanging fruit” items that can soon be implemented to both improve peace of mind for residents. and  save  lives.

Quoting Part of Weather Underground’s blog written by Bob Henson: 

Communications limited as fire swept toward Paradise

“(As the Camp Fire grew rapidly and spread toward Paradise and the Upper Ridge on Thursday morning, evacuation messages were reportedly sent to both land-line phones and cell phones through the county’s CODE RED mass notification system. However, it appears that officials sending the CODE RED messages and going door to door were hard pressed to keep up with the fire’s pace. Moreover, residents with cell phones had to have signed up in advance in order to receive the phone alerts. A state law passed in September will allow counties to automatically sign up residents whose cell-phone numbers are associated with utility bills.

“I wish we had opportunity to get more alerts out, more warning out,” said Sheriff Kory Honea in a community meeting on Monday night, as reported by the Bay Area News Group. “We try to use any many systems as we can… But in the heat of this, it was moving so fast, it was difficult to get that information out.”

The overarching Wireless Emergency Alert system (WEA) for cellphones was not employed in Butte County during the Camp Fire, reported the San Jose Mercury News. The WEA sends certain emergency messages such as tornado and flash flood warnings to newer cellphones as long as the phone owners have not opted out of the service. Some California counties have hesitated to use the WEA for fire evacuation out of concern it would serve as a blunt instrument, alerting too many citizens outside precise evacuation zones and causing traffic tie-ups. Sonoma County officials chose not to use the WEA during the catastrophic fires that struck in October 2017, including the Tubbs Fire—the state’s most destructive blaze on record prior to the Camp Fire.

Another option not employed in the Camp Fire is a “fire weather warning,” a seldom-used product that can be disseminated by the National Weather Service at the request of local officials. “Such a warning must be requested by someone outside of the National Weather Service, such as an emergency manager, rather than being initiated by Weather Service staff themselves,” Andrew Freedman noted in Axios. “That’s the rule even if forecasters can see on Doppler radar or by looking out the window that a fire is headed for a populated area.”

The upshot is that many residents of Paradise apparently saw and heard little to nothing about the fires until the last minute. “We didn’t get a robo call, announcement or any notice from Cal Fire or city,” one resident told the Mercury News. “We had to find out about it second-hand.”)” 

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From Andrew Freedman’s Axios note apparently lack of communication between local officials and the NWS prevented a “fire weather warning” from being issued. It’s my opinion should weather forecasters have a very good reason for issuing a warning they should be allowed to do so, without relying on a “go ahead” by any outside agency.

It’s no wonder that I am seeing comments like this:

 

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I’ll be adding more weather and climate items from Thursday:

 

 

(As usual, this will be a fluid post in which more information gets added during the day as it crosses my radar, crediting all who have put it on-line. Items will be archived on this site for posterity.)

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The Climate Guy

 

2 thoughts on “Extreme Temperature Diary-November 15, 2018/ Topic: Response To California Fires…A New Warning System?

  1. I like the idea of “community fire shelters” kind of like the bomb shelter idea of old, that could be constructed for communities that are vulnerable like Paradise was, also I think the fire warning idea is a good one( also I HAVE seen NWS “fire warnings” in the plains before for individual counties) Another idea for waking people during these overnight blazes( also could be helpful for overnight tornadoes) would be wifi smoke detectors, that would go off not only for smoke, but for could say go off when the city sets off sirens, i.e. city/county pushes a button tornado/fire sirens go off and all residential smoke detectors go off as well( I know there are weather radios that are basically that, but I was thinking maybe there could be a way where you could have something that the user wouldn’t have to program? just make sure its on and that its wifi is turned on and it would be good to go)

    • Thanks Nicholas for your response and interest on the subject of fire warnings. I do hope that bureaucracy can be cut through to improve all warning systems.

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