Waiting for an alert that never came

‘No one anticipates having to evacuate an entire town at the same time,’ says town mayor

Butte County sheriff’s investigator Mic Kelley, at a site in Magalia where workers are searching for human remains, recounts a story of finding an elderly woman alive days after the fire erupted.

Butte County sheriff’s investigator Mic Kelley, at a site in Magalia where workers are searching for human remains, recounts a story of finding an elderly woman alive days after the fire erupted.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Three days after the Camp Fire broke out and sent tens of thousands of people out of the hills, Butte County sheriff’s investigator Mic Kelley was going door to door in Magalia, checking for survivors and pets that may have been left behind.

A familiar pattern emerged: He’d knock, no one would come to the door. That is, until someone did.

“I was startled when I knocked and she happened to answer,” he told N&R. “She was 87 years old, and she had no clue why no one was around.”

Kelley said he asked the woman why she had stayed home by herself. She’d yelled for help as people filled their cars and drove away, she replied, but no one had heard her. She lived in a part of Magalia, north of Paradise, that had largely survived the fire; she had survived off of food defrosting in her freezer and a drip of water from her faucet.

“She was from England,” Kelley said with a smile, “and she told me that after a meal [since the evacuation], she had a bit of cooking sherry with some chocolate.”

Kelley called for an ambulance that took her to a nearby hospital for care, then resumed his knocking. He found four others who answered their doors, but those four had chosen to stay.

Kelley’s rescue story is an illustration of the devastating reality of the Camp Fire evacuation. Not everyone was able to escape; many of them, like the woman in Magalia, were very old.

“People ask, ’Why didn’t someone grab her?’” he said. “What they don’t understand is that this fire was moving at 80 football fields a minute—there was no time to save yourself and your neighbors.”

And some may have not received an alert that the fire was racing toward them.

Behind Kelley, in a neighborhood in Magalia that had been ravaged by the fire, a crew in hazmat suits sifted—literally—through the ash of what used to be a house. They were looking for human remains, he confirmed.

“Unfortunately, we’re just scratching the surface,” he said. As of Tuesday, there were 88 fatalities and more than 200 people still missing.

Of the 203 people listed as missing, many do not list ages. Those that do skew high—a majority are over the age of 60, with many in their 80s and 90s. The youngest is 14; the oldest, 100.

“The median age [in Paradise] was 50,” said Jody Jones, Paradise mayor, notably using the past tense. “But that had come down a bit in the last few years. There were quite a few older, retired people, but we also had a lot of young families with children.”

In characterizing the town, Jones said the large number of retirees meant a lot of opportunities to volunteer.

“There were a lot of service clubs, a very active senior center, there was the Moose Lodge and the Elks, there was a garden club,” she said. “When you’re retired, you look for things to do and ways to give back.”

Jones has been on the Paradise Town Council since 2014, but she was a resident 10 years ago when the Humboldt Fire threatened her town. Since then, she said, there have been many efforts to ensure a safe and orderly evacuation. That included opening up an escape route to the north, through Magalia and Stirling City, as well as implementing a zone system, in which specific neighborhoods can be evacuated without sending the whole town into pandemonium.

“I got an emergency alert on my cellphone at 8:31 [a.m., November 8],” Jones said. Those with a land line are automatically opted in to the reverse-911 system, but cellphone users must opt in.

“We did some drives to ensure that people would sign up,” she explained. “We’d send them things in the mail, advertise that you have to sign up, and a lot of people didn’t.

“For the people that got [the alert], it worked,” she added. “But no one anticipates having to evacuate an entire town at the same time. It overwhelmed the transportation system.”

Thing is, the town had anticipated evacuating the entire town. In fact, that was part of the reasoning behind creating an alternative route out—north.

Notably absent from the Camp Fire evacuation notice was the lack of use of the emergency alert system, or EAS, which reaches anyone with a radio or television on.

“We were actually kind of surprised, because we didn’t realize [the fire was happening] until after we’d gone into coverage mode, just being here,” said Paul Boris, operations manager at Thunder 100.7 FM, the area’s primary radio station, from which all other frequencies rebroadcast emergency alerts.

During the evacuation of the region surrounding the Oroville Dam in early 2017, for instance, an EAS apprised all area residents of the situation, which roads were open, which areas were not safe, which direction to go.

Not so on November 8.

“Later in the day, we wondered if an EAS ever went out,” Boris recalled. “But no, apparently they’re using some kind of opt-in system.”

When it comes to an older population, many don’t have cellphones. Some are bed-bound or rely on wheelchairs or walkers to get around, and others have medical equipment like oxygen that hinders mobility, explained Amanda Brogan, lifestyle director at The Terraces, a retirement home in Chico. Her facility, as with the others in town, has welcomed a number of new residents, Camp Fire evacuees.

On the morning the fire broke out, The Terraces’ executive director asked that its two buses be sent to Paradise to retrieve residents in facilities there.

“We were on it,” Brogan said.

The drivers, both from the Ridge, spent all day in Paradise picking up residents and stuck in traffic.

“People were just leaving their cars, knocking on the bus doors,” she said, “so they ended up picking more people up.”

The Terraces, being so close to Highway 32, where the fire was creeping the evening of November 8, ended up having to evacuate itself.

“All day, we were calling family members, letting them know that we’re not on alert or warning, but if you want to bring your loved one home for a couple of days, do so,” Brogan added. “A lot of people did come pick them up. We had our residents get a bag together. And our nurse gathered medication. Then, around 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning, the fire was getting close to 32, so we got a Greyhound and our two buses and brought everyone to Roseville.”

For Brogan, the evacuation of just one facility was an undertaking. She said she struggled to think of trying to evacuate an entire town where many of the residents are older.

“Being in this business and working with seniors for 15 years, I’ve been thinking of the residents who didn’t get that alert,” she said. “Or not even having transportation because they don’t drive, maybe not having family that was around to assist them, and some of them not even having any idea what was going on.

“It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around it, it’s so devastating.”