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False alarms compound the misery of L.A.'s wildfires

L.A. County's reverse 911 system calls on too many to evacuate, and residents find government websites to be out of date.

September 04, 2009|Alexandra Zavis

It was a quiet night at the Crescenta Valley High School evacuation center. Eleven people were asleep in their cots, evacuated from homes near burning foothills in the Angeles National Forest.

Then, with no warning, nearly 200 more evacuees turned up about 2:30 a.m. Some clutched pillows and still wore pajamas, said Mack Dugger, an American Red Cross volunteer on duty that night. They'd been jarred from their beds early Monday by automated phone calls -- known as reverse 911 calls -- warning them to get out of the path of the Station fire.

Only most were in no such danger. Sheriff's officials had made a mistake when they entered the evacuation zone in the system. About two hours later, deputies arrived to explain the error.

"All of a sudden we were back down to 11 people again," Dugger said.

Communication between authorities and the public during the Station fire -- the largest in Los Angeles County in modern history -- has been such a problem that county supervisors ordered an investigation earlier this week.

Residents in the fire zones have complained that information on government websites is out of date, emergency personnel give them conflicting instructions and media reports don't tell them how close the fire is to their homes. On top of that, the county's first effort to use its new $1.9-million reverse 911 system, launched in June, was hampered by human error.

Reaching residents quickly, particularly those in remote areas, took on new urgency after the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego County. That fire, which grew to more than 280,000 acres, killed 12 people on its first night, overtaking two canyon communities before authorities could warn residents. The Alert L.A. County system, which covers both incorporated and unincorporated areas, allows officials to launch thousands of phone calls by drawing the targeted areas on a computerized map.

"Unfortunately, it is not an exact science," said Sheriff's Lt. Keith Swensson. "What we plotted out on the map was a little too large, and some residents were notified who shouldn't have."

Still, Swensson said everyone who needed to evacuate was notified, and he reiterated the importance of heeding evacuation orders.

Sarah Rush and Fred Bova had lost their previous home when fire swept through the Lake Arrowhead community of Cedar Glen in 2003. When they received one of the erroneous calls Monday, they did not think to look outside to see how close the fire was.

"I was just shaking in my boots -- and I couldn't even find my boots," Rush said. They stumbled from their beds and loaded up their cars.

"We took all of Aunt Olive's paintings down from the wall, family photos and my great-grandmother's quilts," Rush said.

But neighbors who had called the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for more information told them to stop, it was a false alarm. Shortly before 5 a.m., they received another automated call confirming the error.

"Better to err on the side of caution than to not inform us," Rush said.

Some residents said they were told only to evacuate; others received a call reversing that order, but they had not been told to leave in the first place. Frustrated with official communications, many went to their roofs to make their own assessment and shared the information through Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and community blogs.

Major fires always pose communications problems, said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore. But the size and unpredictability of the Station fire makes it especially difficult.

"Things move so fast and people want information instantly," Whitmore said.

The number of agencies involved adds to the confusion, and it can take time for new orders to filter down.

When sheriff's deputies with bullhorns roused Vickere Murphy and her husband from sleep Monday with orders to evacuate, the La Crescenta couple said it was too smoky to tell how close the fire was. So they called the local sheriff's station and the 211 information line. Both said they were not in the evacuation zone.

Confused, Murphy logged onto Facebook to see what her friends were saying. She also checked the latest tweets from the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, but those updates slowed down when things got busy.

"I desperately wished someone could have been constantly twittering from those sources," Murphy said. A few hours later, the evacuation order was lifted.

One homeowner became so frustrated that he interrupted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's news conference Sunday to plead for information about the fate of his and other homes in Big Tujunga Canyon. He was told it was too dangerous for assessment teams to go into the area.

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