Reveal: Warning System Down: California’s Deadliest Fires

It used to be that there was a discrete wildfire season, a period of time where fire risk was highest. Throughout the country, that season is getting longer, and in many places now, wildfire season is happening year-round. Fires are getting bigger, and they’re burning hotter.

Last October, more than 170 wildfires ripped across Northern California, burning more than 9,000 buildings, causing millions in damage and killing 44 people. It was the deadliest fire incident in the state’s history.

This week’s episode is a partnership with KQED in San Francisco. KQED reporters Marisa Lagos, Sukey Lewis and Lisa Pickoff-White obtained thousands of 911 calls and dispatch recordings, and together we reconstruct the first hours of those fires. Starting from the night of Oct. 8, 2017, we examine the decisions that were made and the delays in evacuation warnings that may have contributed to more deaths.

High winds and downed power lines kick up several small blazes across the state. Power surges then extend those problems, crippling more and more of the power grid and also sparking additional fires. When large fires eventually break out, firefighters are spread thin attending to multiple small blazes. Fueled by high winds, those large fires quickly grow out of control.

Meanwhile, many county agencies had different terms and protocols for issuing warnings. A series of 911 calls, acquired by KQED, show in stark detail how quickly critical procedures broke down. Some evacuation orders hit landlines, which only about half of Americans use; others were seriously delayed. Residents in counties such as Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino were ambushed by walls of flame, and dozens didn’t make it out alive.

In our second story, reporters Eric Sagara and Patrick Michaels look at rebuilding efforts, zeroing in on a neighborhood called Fountain Grove. Located in the hills above Sonoma County’s biggest city, Santa Rosa, Fountain Grove wasn’t just devastated by the fires in October; that area has burned before. In fact, there was a nearly identical fire that occured in 1964, except fewer homes were destroyed and no one died.

Why were the recent fires so much more destructive? Simple: More people have built houses there, expanding into the wildland urban interface.

What Sagara and Michaels found in and around Santa Rosa is consistent with development patterns across the nation after a major fire. Not only are officials allowing people to rebuild in areas of high fire risk, but they also are approving brand-new construction, effectively expanding into areas they know will one day burn again.

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