California residents forced from their homes by one of the deadliest wildfires in recent history have one request before they rebuild in the small mountain town of Paradise: warns the sirens to strengthen the city’s emergency systems that failed some people before the strong movement of the inferno that killed 85. .
Town officials began testing the new sirens this summer after installation began in the spring and as the five-year anniversary of the fire that killed most of the community approaches this November. Eventually there will be 21 sirens erected throughout the city that will emit one minute of loud, Hi-Lo warning sounds followed by evacuation instructions.
“When you go back to town, when you become part of Paradise again, what makes you feel safe and happy and want to come back? What do you need?” Paradise Mayor Greg Bolin recalled asking residents after the fire. “Number one on that list was a warning system.”
Tests for sirens begin in July and are run on the first Saturday of each month. Twelve sirens will be ready for testing in early August, in locations ranging from Town Hall to police headquarters to remote intersections. City protocol states that sirens and messages will sound for 10 minutes, followed by intervals of five minutes of silence and five minutes of warnings “until the emergency has subsided.”
Reliable, audible warning systems become increasingly critical during wildfires of increasing speed and ferocity, especially when power lines and cell towers fail, disrupting communications essential to sustaining people’s information. After the 2017 wildfires tore through California’s wine country, killing dozens, residents complained they had little or no warning from officials, who used phone calls and other alert systems but did not set a widespread cellphone alert. Many residents of Paradise have the same complaint.
Even if siren systems are in place, officers must choose to activate them.
Officials in Hawaii failed to activate sirens last week, raising questions about whether enough was done to alert the public in a state that has developed an elaborate emergency warning system for potential hazards. includes war, volcanoes, typhoons and fires. In Maui, more than 100 people died as a result of the wildfires.
Like Paraiso, some people tried to flee Lahaina but died in their cars after getting stuck in traffic.
Many residents said they did not receive a warning on their cellphones or landlines because the fire spread so fast. They jumped into their cars to escape only after seeing smoke and flames, or after relatives or neighbors knocked on their doors.
“If that fire had happened just a few hours earlier than what happened, we would have had hundreds of people die because of that because they were in bed,” Bolin said.
The new sirens, similar to the tsunami warning system, are included in the city’s emergency services, which include mass cell notifications, an emergency call center for people to call, and an AM radio station that broadcasts safety information on public.
The Paradise siren system can be controlled manually, over the internet, or via satellite. Power to the towers is hard-wired underground, but each siren has a solar panel that can store two weeks’ worth of electricity.
“We had back-up after back-up of it,” Bolin said.
University of California forest expert Yana Valachovic said redundancy in emergency services is needed to address different scenarios.
“We can’t guarantee that we have the power and cell phone communication capabilities so, every community needs a full toolbox of resources,” he said.
Authorities should also consider designating temporary refuge areas and practice evacuating their communities at different times of the day, he added.
As part of the rebuilding of Paradise, crews removed thousands of trees, cleared protective space around homes to slow fires, buried power lines underground, and evacuation routes were expanded to handle more traffic, Bolin said.
Like Paradise, communities across California have created systems to notify people in the event of an emergency, from sirens to police patrol cars and other emergency vehicles to cellphone notification systems. In May, officials in Santa Rosa, where the wine country fire broke out, tested a new cellphone alert system. In March, Beverly Hills began installing 12 outdoor sirens. Sonoma County has installed a sophisticated fire camera system to detect fires earlier.
The California Office of Emergency Services in 2019 issued alert and warning guidelines for counties. It warns that sirens may have limited effectiveness because people inside well-insulated homes and buildings may not hear them.
“If a public siren is used for alert and warning, it should include an extensive public outreach campaign to educate residents and visitors on what the siren means and the intended protective action. ,” it said.
Jen Goodlin, a Paradise native and director of Rebuild Paradise who returned after the fire to help rebuild, said she supports the sirens because many in the community don’t have easy access to the internet or media. .
Having the mermaids “is a way to help them escape quickly. It makes me feel safer,” Goodlin said.
Rodriguez reported from San Francisco.
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