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Story highlights

Breena Kerr: A mass alert would've communicated the severity of the fires early enough for people to evacuate efficiently

The lack of communication played a big role in the chaos, she writes

Editor’s Note: Breena Kerr is a journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area covering breaking news, culture, travel and health. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

(CNN) —  

Before daybreak on Monday, at 6 a.m., my phone was alight with texts and phone calls – hours after some had been chased from their homes by flames. I woke up bleary-eyed and answered the latest call. “It’s gone,” my cousin said, her voice drained by shock, “It’s all gone.”

As a reporter, I’ve chased more tragedies than I can count. Mass shootings, murders, suicides, fallen trees, car accidents — you name it. I drove into them, ran into them, knocked on their doors, called them on the phone. But this week, the tragedy came to me.

Breena Kerr
courtesy of Breena Kerr
Breena Kerr

By that morning, Santa Rosa was in flames, along with other parts of Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa and Solano counties.

By late Monday morning, hordes of people in packed cars were headed north, many with no certainty where they were going. In Healdsburg, normally a 20-minute drive from Santa Rosa, but then more than an hour in traffic, the lines for gas stations spilled out into the street and many stations ran out of fuel. The delivery trucks couldn’t help because the fire had spread across the highway and shut it down. I could tell who the evacuees were, but it didn’t take a reporter’s eye. It was obvious. Their cars were packed with belongings (if they were “lucky”), and their eyes were red from smoke, being woken up in the middle of the night, and crying. They appeared in the pharmacy, clutching deodorant, toothpaste, slippers — there was never much, because, where do you start when you lose everything? They filled hotel parking lots, meandering, hoping for a room, or rifling through possessions they’d managed to take. I heard, “my house is gone,” more times than I can count.

Communication — or lack of it — during the disaster may be the biggest rub. Oddly, in a city so close to Silicon Valley, the birthplace of thousands of apps that make it easier to get everything with a smartphone (weed, lunch, laundry and a million hardly useful things that I won’t mention here), there’s been no one good way to share reliable information. In part, that was because many people didn’t have cell service and Internet was cut off for many customers.

But even for people like me, whose phones did work, at the time there were numerous questionable maps and ultimately no good way to track fires — and that’s a huge problem. On Thursday, word came that Sonoma County officials decided not to send a mass alert on Sunday night, fearing it would falsely alarm those in unaffected areas and cause mass panic. That may have been the right call. But then again, a mass alert was also the only thing that could have communicated the gravity of danger early on. And we needed that, because right now, social media isn’t cutting it.

I’m in the business of getting information, and when a mandatory advisory was issued for my neighborhood on Wednesday I struggled to find it. If that was true for me, how were my elderly neighbors, some of whom are less tech savvy and able-bodied, supposed to fare?

Later on Monday, when Highway 101 – our main freeway – was opened, I drove south to see what had happened for myself. One drive through town was enough before smoke and fear forced me to turn around. Felled trees burned on the side of the road, near where firefighters exhaustedly tugged a hose to douse what was once a business, and now just rubble. Up on the hillsides, dark columns of smoke were barely visible through the gray haze.

But amid the destruction, there have been so many moments of strength and kindness. At the area’s main evacuation center, for instance, I saw people caring for the animals that were left behind. There’s really nothing quite like watching a volunteer dab eye drops on a horse, or a veterinary student wrangle a sheep into a paddock in the middle of a disaster zone, because that life, too, is worth saving.

There’s much help being offered, but the spotty, disorganized nature of it makes things challenging, especially combined with the clunky, maddening procedure of governmental organizations. On Tuesday, Travis Air Force Base tweeted that it was ready to help with the fire, but had to be asked first. Why it can’t just help when it’s obvious help is needed is maddening.

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There has to be a better way. Right now, I see every department involved – from local fire departments to Cal Fire – using totally different methods. Some use Twitter but update them only a couple of times a day, despite promises of frequent updates. Others send Nixle alerts, but not everyone gets those, because you have to opt in online or by texting your zip code to a number that few people know about (888-777). Others use Facebook. How are panicking people who need to get out of their homes supposed to dig through all this information? I saw people in their driveway with binoculars trying to gauge where the smoke was headed on Tuesday, and that makes the deficiencies of the system painfully obvious.

What is obvious is that this fire may become the deadliest in recent California history. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’m not alone. The people of Northern California, from those of us near the fires, to the millions more who are breathing in smoke today, need all the help we can get. Don’t wait for us to ask — we don’t have time.

This article has been updated to clarify the process of using Nixle.