USA – A California state Auditor’s Office report released Thursday ripped state officials and local governments for failing to adequately set up “plans to alert, evacuate and shelter” residents as deadly and destructive wildfires swept through communities over the past three years.
In addition to singling out three specific counties for their lack of planning, the report criticized the state Office of Emergency Services for not providing assistance to help local governments make plans in preparation for wildfires.
The state auditor reviewed Sonoma, Ventura and Butte counties’ emergency plans and whether they incorporated best practices because each had endured devastating wildfires in the past three years.
“We determined that the counties have not adequately followed key practices for emergency planning, including having emergency plans for alerting, evacuating, and sheltering residents and assessing the needs of their communities in advance of disaster events,” the auditor’s report says.
“As a result, the counties are less prepared for future natural disasters, which may place the residents for whom they are responsible at greater risk of harm,” the report says.
Some of the auditor’s findings are similar to those uncovered by an investigation by several news organizations around the state, including the Record Searchlight, the USA TODAY Network, McClatchy newspapers, Associated Press and Digital First.
That investigation found few communities around the state have developed formal wildfire evacuation plans.
In that series of stories, reporters contacted officials in 27 of the communities most at risk for wildfire, and filed document requests under the California Public Records Act with those that refused to release plans.
Reporters found that fewer than one in four, just 22%, have a robust evacuation plan that is available to the public.
One county, San Bernardino, refused to let the public see its evacuation plans because officials there claimed doing so would be a security risk.
In addition to the overall lack of planning for wildfires, the auditor also faulted the three counties for their inadequate plans to alert and evacuate people with disabilities and mobility issues.
“Although everyone is vulnerable during a natural disaster, people with access and functional needs are even more vulnerable. As a result, these individuals have historically been disproportionately affected by natural disasters,” the report says.
‘Am I going to stay in the parking lot . . . while the fires burn around me?’
None of the three counties issued evacuation warnings in languages other than English. Also Butte and Sonoma counties did not send out wildfire alerts by cell phone, the report says.
The report also faulted the state Office of Emergency Services for not doing enough to help local communities prepare for wildfires and not consulting with people with disabilities and mobility issues when developing its own plans.
While other states, such as Florida and Texas, require their state emergency management agencies to set standards for and periodically review local emergency management plans, California does not, the report says.
The report also faulted Cal OES for not issuing after-action reports within 120 days after a large fire, as required by state law.
The last report Cal OES issued was for a 2015 fire and the report was not completed until May 2019.
“As a result, it (Cal OES) has missed an opportunity to assist local jurisdictions in adapting their plans based on the lessons learned by other jurisdictions.
While Butte and Ventura counties disputed the report’s findings, Sonoma “generally agreed with our recommendations,” the report says.
Destined to Burn: Wildfires threaten California – are we prepared?
In its response to the auditor’s report, Butte County said it has had plenty of experience in recent years dealing with disasters, notably the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 86 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings.
In 2017, the county was involved in evacuating the entire town of Oroville and several other nearby communities during the Oroville Dam spillway emergency. During that incident some 180,000 people were evacuated, including residents of counties outside Butte.
Further, Butte officials said wildfires are difficult to plan for because there is no advance warning of where a fire will occur and it is difficult to predict a fire’s behavior before it happens.
Butte officials said their ability to keep reports up-to-date is also limited by available resources.
“Though the report appears to make planning more important than response, the County knows from decades of experience in disasters that planning is helpful, but is not the only indicator of success in responding to disasters,” according to a response written by Shari McCracken, the county chief administrative officer, and Sheriff Kory Honea.
In addition to the county responses to the report, Cal OES had a particularly strong reaction to the auditor’s findings.
“Cal OES strongly disagreed with our conclusion that it has not adequately supported local jurisdictions in planning to meet access and functional needs and indicated that it would not fully implement our recommendation to provide all of the guidance that state law requires it to provide to local jurisdictions,” the report says.