Wildfire Alert Went Out, and Cellphones for 300 Miles Squawked and Shook

Wildfire Alert Went Out, and Cellphones for 300 Miles Squawked and Shook
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With fires raging out of control and extremely high winds forecast, California officials on Wednesday night sent out an alert to seven counties and at least eight million cellphones. Credit Kyle Grillot/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For the latest news on the wildfires, read our Thursday live updates here.

From the desert along the Mexican border to the central California coast, a distance of more than 300 miles, cellphones squawked and shook all at once on Wednesday night, and displayed a simple, serious message.

“Strong winds overnight creating extreme fire danger,” it said. “Stay alert. Listen to authorities.”

The alert went to most smartphones across seven counties that are home to more than 22 million people — by far California’s largest use of a disaster warning system created by Congress and activated in 2012.

“It is, for us, an unprecedented move,” said Kelly B. Huston, the deputy director of the state Office of Emergency Services.

The same alert system was not used in October, when fires swept through Napa and Sonoma Counties near San Francisco, destroying thousands of homes and killing dozens of people. Many survivors of those fires complained that they had little or no warning of the disaster.

That experience was uppermost in the minds of state officials who decided to send the message at 8 p.m. Pacific time on Wednesday, Mr. Huston said, though he would not second-guess the decisions made two months earlier.

“We looked at the conditions that were present” in Southern California, he said, “and saw that they were eerily similar to the conditions just before the fires really blew up in Sonoma County. We had extraordinarily high winds, we had fire, and it was nighttime.”

For generations, emergency alerts have been sent over television and radio broadcasts, but anyone who was not watching or listening at that time was left out. Many cities and counties now have systems that can ring every landline telephone with a recorded message, but people who are away from the phone may not hear the message right away, and landline use is declining.

Local governments also send alerts through text messages or email — and they have made aggressive use of the systems during this year’s fire season — but they are sent only to people who sign up for the notices.

The kind of warning that California officials sent on Wednesday, called a wireless emergency alert, is like a text message but uses a different system. The alert makes the phone vibrate with much more force than it ordinarily would, and makes it squawk loudly, alerting the user that the message is no ordinary one.

All smartphones are automatically set by default to receive the messages, which are limited to 90 characters, though a user can alter the phone’s settings to turn them off. The alerts are most commonly used to send Amber Alerts about child abductions, but they are also sent to warn of disasters.

Usually, the emergency alerts are sent by counties or cities, and Ventura County used the system this week before the state did. But the Office of Emergency Services, in consultation with Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency, and the National Weather Service, decided that with fires raging out of control and extremely high winds forecast, a consistent message was needed across a much wider region.

The alert went to smartphones in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. Mr. Huston estimated that it was received on at least eight million phones.

“I don’t think it’s possible to over-alert people,” under such serious conditions, he said. “It’s really simply ringing the bell to get people’s attention.”

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