Crucial communication proves difficult as wildfires knock out cell towers

SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- The wildfires raging through Northern California have also knocked out cell phone service, making it more difficult for people to call for and get help, and for families to locate loved ones.

On Sunday night, Sonoma County dispatchers were flooded with calls for help, reports CBS News correspondent Mireya Villarreal.

The Coffey Park neighborhood was demolished by the fire. Heather Bowers' mother barely made it out before the wildfire consumed her home.

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Heather Bowers

CBS News

"Did anyone get any warnings?" Villarreal asked.

"No ... I went outside to check and it was just like literally like a tornado outside, just ash everywhere,'" Bowers said.

Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordono admits that warning people, even with an automated calling system, was difficult.

"People don't have land lines anymore," he said. "Without land lines if you don't sign your cell phone up, you don't get that service."

Seventy-seven cell towers went down during the fire. But the widespread outages didn't just affect first responders.

Hundreds of people have been reported missing, like Pam Hughes. Family have posted on Facebook, but now her niece Karma Hughes is going from shelter to shelter, trying to find her.

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Pam Hughes, who has been reported missing by her family

Hughes family

"I don't know how to get any word to her when, you know, I'm using what resources I do have," she said.

As a last resort, Karma posted a handwritten note, along with dozens of others, on a shelter door.

"This is an absolute war zone and you can't find anybody, in my case, my aunt, and she's right in town," she said.

Normally the sheriff's department gets 3,000 calls in a month, but in the last four days they've fielded more than 1,600.

But communication is getting better: Of the 77 cell towers knocked out, 64 have been fixed.