This Is What Californians Really Needed During the Fires

Breena Kerr | CNN | October 12, 2017

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. 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...