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Communication problems plague California as 22 large fires rage on

Calif. wildfire alert problems
California wildfires highlight emergency alert system problems 02:54

At least 23 people have been killed in the wildfires ravaging California. It's estimated that 3,500 homes and business have been destroyed so far as 8,000 firefighters work to control the 22 large fires that continue to burn across the state. There are still 285 missing persons reports filed, but officials believe many of those could be due to communication issues.

California Highway Patrol went door to door in parts of Sonoma County Wednesday night strongly advising people to leave their homes.

Some residents say a lack of communication is what prevented them from knowing the fire was coming closer, reports CBS News' Mireya Villarreal from Santa Rosa, one of the hardest hit areas. 

"It's devastating. It literally looks like a bomb went off," said Heather Bowers. When she saw ash raining down in her front yard Sunday night, she became the neighborhood emergency alert system.

"They were like, 'what's going on?' I'm like, 'you need to pack your stuff up and get out,'" Bowers said.
Bowers' mother and two brothers lost their homes, her mother escaping with only the clothes she was wearing.

Many people in the danger zones were caught by surprise and needed help getting out.

"Communication problems in general have been difficult," said Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordono. He said alerts were sent out, but admits that not everyone would have received them.

"We still have systems that will call landlines for blocks of area and it will call all of those houses. But now, without landlines, if you do not sign your cellphone up, you don't get that service," Giordano said.

The fires knocked out 77 cell phone towers but now only 13 are down. In those cases, Giordano says, people should sign up for Nixle, a service used by emergency responders that can send alerts over Wi-Fi.

Asked if there is a backup system or a plan for one, Giordano said it was down to the news media: "We want people to listen to their radio, pay attention to their cell phone, get on the internet, go to the web pages. Use them all, so you don't miss the pieces."

CBS News spoke with a family whose aunt was missing since Sunday. A hotel employee watching our story five towns away recognized her and helped us reunite that family.

Nixle told "CBS This Morning" it has already delivered more than four million text and messages since the fires began. 

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