Thomas Fire alert system worked as intended, Ventura County officials say

Gavin Floyd sifts through the wreckage of a dormitory destroyed in the Thomas Fire at the Ojai Valley School's Upper Campus on Dec. 20, 2017.
Gavin Floyd sifts through the wreckage of a dormitory destroyed in the Thomas Fire at the Ojai Valley School's Upper Campus on Dec. 20, 2017.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

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On Dec. 4, 2017, Kiera Van Gelder's landlord came to her door at maybe 6 o'clock. "There's a fire," the landlord told her. "It's a ways away."

Van Gelder saw little reason for concern. "It's California," the East Coast native reasoned. "There's fires."

She didn't know conditions were ripe for the spread of fire that night. What sparked about seven miles east of Van Gelder's door was the Thomas Fire, which would burn 65,000 acres in its first 36 hours — and eventually grow to char more acres of land than any fire in the state's recorded history.

It wasn't until the power started flickering that Van Gelder — who lived in an apartment attached to her landlord's house in the middle of a flat, open field east of Ojai — had any sense something was wrong. She hopped on Facebook, which by then was buzzing with fire talk: some people had already been evacuated; others hadn't.

But Van Gelder couldn't see a fire, or even smell much smoke. And she was signed up to receive notifications from Ventura County; the county's "VC Alert" system can buzz cell phones, practically all landlines and email inboxes with emergency messages.

She packed a few essentials in her car, just in case. But after consulted her landlords again, Van Gelder was re-assured: if we need to leave, we'll get a call. Around 8 o'clock, they all decided to turn in for the night.

Half-an-hour later, two fire engines came to the house. "This is an emergency evacuation," the firefighters announced through blowhorns.

"It was really a shock," Van Gelder said — the visit from the firefighters was the first indication she received from any government agency that she was in danger. She and her landlords raced out of the house and left for an evacuation center in town. Even then, Van Gelder remembers feeling like the evacuation was just a precaution.

She had idea it would be the last time she or her landlords would see their home.

Set against a hillside charred by the Thomas Fire, smoke coming from above the east end of the Ojai Valley was visible on Dec. 18, 2017.
Set against a hillside charred by the Thomas Fire, smoke coming from above the east end of the Ojai Valley was visible on Dec. 18, 2017.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

In theory, alerting someone in the path of a wildfire is easier today than ever — especially if that person lives within range of a cell phone tower.

But there's a disconnect about whether the VC Alert system — which county officials used to send evacuation messages to landlines and cell phones — worked as intended during the Thomas Fire.

In Ojai, many residents said the system failed to deliver alerts. First responders who fought the fire in Ojai during those hair-raising first days back up these reports from residents.

Communication during a wildfire is a life-or-death matter. In October, after four wildfires killed 39 people in Northern California, officials faced questions about their speed and strategy in communicating evacuation alerts.

But it’s far from clear the same thing happened in Ojai during the Thomas Fire. County officials can't square these anecdotes with data they showed KPCC which, they said, does not indicate anything went wrong with the VC Alert system. In fact, first responders said they used lessons learned from those Northern California fires to save lives.

And they point out that unlike in those Northern California fires, two people died in the Thomas Fire — a fatality count relatively low for any fire in the state's history that burned as many structures.

“This is the highest-threat incident we’ve had in this county in generations," said Kevin McGowan, who manages the Ventura County Sheriff's Office of Emergency Services, "and the results have been overwhelmingly successful."

The anecdotes are striking nonetheless. Amanda Rogers said her family was the only household on her street southwest of Ojai to successfully receive a VC Alert — and was also one of the few families in their neighborhood to lose a home.

"It was a complete blackout — no phone, no cell service," Rogers said.

Another resident said that as she evacuated at the very last minute, she was startled to hear from an elderly neighbor who hadn’t been officially contacted at all.

Van Gelder's case is different: she now knows the mandatory evacuation zone did not technically cover her home; the boundary ended right across the street. That means she technically wasn’t supposed to get a VC Alert, but was evacuated anyway.

And all over Ojai, residents tell stories like Van Gelder's — of communications getting garbled as the fire stretched law enforcement and firefighting resources thin.

“Talking to residents shortly after the fire had come through, especially in the upper Ojai area, they said, ‘Well, I signed up for VC Alert, but I never got anything!’” said John McNeil, a division chief for the Ventura County Fire Department, who was on the scene of the Thomas Fire during the most harrowing first days.

McNeil confirmed that the fire had knocked out several cell towers in Ojai. He also saw utility poles burned down by the fire — poles that carry landlines and internet wires, which he suspects also prevented some of the VC Alerts from getting through.

"It wasn’t for lack of effort or planning," McNeil said in an interview with KPCC. "It was infrastructure failures."

A home destroyed in the Thomas Fire.
A home destroyed in the Thomas Fire.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

McGowan can't rule out that the cell and internet service problems McNeil reported prevented VC Alerts from reaching their intended recipients — but McGowan also has no data proving McNeil's account correct either.

McGowan showed KPCC the computer system Ventura County officials use to send VC Alerts — a system he says was used to notify more than 90,000 "contacts" of a voluntary or mandatory evacuation during the days of the Thomas Fire.

Using a mix of public and private data sources, the system that sends VC Alerts has the ability to send a phone message to practically every land-line telephone in the county (unless it's connected to a voice-over IP, or VOIP, network). More than 67,000 residents have also voluntarily registered to receive VC Alerts, many of them so they can receive alerts on their mobile phones, or alerts for locations other than their primary address, such as a child's school or a workplace.

McGowan is in charge of the team that sends VC Alerts, and he can track how many get sent successfully. He said the data from the Thomas Fire show very few of the messages returned as "unreachable" — the category in a report which shows a line has been disconnected, indicating the system has bad data; a high number of "unreachable" contacts indicates something might be wrong with the system.

But while the data essentially show that the system was able to successfully send a message as far as the cell phone tower, McGowan said the data do not confirm that the cell phone tower was able to send the message — or that a phone was able to receive that.

“Could they have lost cell signal? Definitely," he said. "And could that have impacted their ability to receive a message that's plausible for sure? That doesn't mean the system failed.”

McGowan said emergency managers always try to notify residents in multiple ways: not just through alerts to phones or websites, but on TV and radio — and with in-person notifications.

Ventura County Fire Chief McNeil said he wished in-person notifications had played a more central role in first responders' strategy in those early hours. Door-knocking wasn't a "first thought," McNeil said — and leaning more on the tactic might have helped compensate for poor cell phone coverage.

"We had a false sense of security early on that the message was getting out and being well-received," McNeil told a community meeting in Ojai on Dec. 17.

In his KPCC interview, McNeil elaborated that officials' false sense of security came from hoping technology would allow them to "hit a larger target with less physical effort than knocking on doors and driving fire trucks and police cars to every neighborhood and giving them the bullhorn."

Yet McGowan pointed to firefighters rousing Van Gelder from her home that first night as that employing redundant communication tactics did pay off that night. "The system worked."

Both McNeil, McGowan and other county law enforcement officials said they have been struck by the expectations borne of the social media age and the rise of the smartphone.

"It’s a challenge," McNeil said, "to keep people hungry for information, that are used to having it at their fingertips at all times, well-informed."

For the first few days after finding out her and her landlord's house had burned, Van Gelder was "really angry." Her landlords left the house with basically no possessions. They all could’ve used more time to prepare to leave.

"But when I heard that a firefighter died fighting this battle," she said, "and I realized that their priority was saving lives and that technology can fail us — and it always does eventually because it's technology — I mean I think I'm at a place of acceptance now."

Van Gelder has found a new place to live and is starting to move on.