USA – Landline, cellphone and internet service took a big hit during the North Bay wildfires, creating a telecommunications gap that left many residents uninformed and fearing their lives were endangered, according to a new report.
Across Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, about two-thirds of the respondents to a poll conducted by a broadband communications group said they lost some or all landline phone and internet service, while more than three-fourths lost some or all cellular phone service.
The service outages triggered by the October wildfires “left many residents both near and far from the fire zones at a loss for critical fire information, often leading to distress and panic,” said the 85-page report by the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium, a public agency that represents the three counties.
“It’s pretty shocking,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, a member of the consortium’s oversight committee, calling the report evidence the region’s telecommunications system “is not disaster-proof.”
“The things you rely on every day are not there when we need them the most,” she said.
The report, which will be submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, concluded the region “lacked a well-designed telecommunications network that was resilient enough to survive the wildfires.”
The consortium’s online survey received 3,705 responses from residents of the three counties ravaged by the October wildfires, the most destructive and deadly in state history.
In Sonoma County, 70 percent of respondents said they lost internet service, 64 percent lost landline phone service and 59 percent lost cell service.
Over the three counties combined, 78 percent said they lost cell service, 69 percent lost internet service and 66 percent lost landline service.
Nearly one-quarter of respondents (23 percent) said they received no warning or evacuation notice from anyone outside their home, while 19 percent got a reverse 911 call or a phone alert, such as a text or Amber Alert.
More than a third (36 percent) were warned by a neighbor at their door, a phone call from a neighbor, relative of friend, or a public safety official at the door or sounding a bullhorn or siren outside.
Asked how informed they felt during the first 48 hours of the fires Oct. 9 and 10, more than half (53 percent) of the respondents said they were “somewhat informed” to “very informed.” Thirty percent said the were “minimally informed” and 16 percent said they were “completely in the dark” about what was happening.
Nearly three-fourths (73 percent) of respondents said they felt the lack of telecommunications service left them feeling their lives were endangered, while 27 percent said they felt threatened.
Calvin Sandeen, a project coordinator with the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, which supports the consortium, said the report was the first of its kind to assess telecommunication lapses during the fires.
Its findings correspond with The Press Democrat Poll that found 5 percent of respondents received fire warnings over landlines, 17 percent got cellphone warnings and 47 percent heard from a neighbor, friend, relative or public safety officer.
Forty-three percent said they received no warning.
Hopkins said the consortium’s report points to the need for “redundancies” in the county’s emergency alert system, especially in rural areas where there is no cellphone coverage.
Communities should establish their own systems, she said, using walkie-talkies, ham radios, sirens or door-to-door personal contacts.
“At the end of the day the best system to rely on is boots on the ground,” she said.
The report also underscores the consortium’s primary mission of promoting greater broadband coverage in rural areas, Hopkins said.
or residents, the report recommended numerous measures, including adopting a diversity of communication methods at home, signing up for alerts such as Nixle, maintaining a basic wired landline service and having a portable radio and/or scanner with extra batteries.