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Authorities Defend Decision Not To Send Evacuation Alerts During Fire

SONOMA COUNTY (CBS SF) – A week after the deadly wine country wildfires started, some residents were questioning why authorities in two of the counties hit hard by the fires opted not to send evacuation alerts to people's cell phones during the initial rapid spread.

Stuart Mitchell of Sebastapol is one of hundreds of thousands of people in Northern California who did not receive an emergency alert that the wildfires were fast approaching.

"I think a lot of lives could have been saved if people were given the information," said Mitchell.

He even tried to sign up for Nixle and SoCo alerts through the county, but found the process confusing.

"It's a public health and safety issue, so it should be easier for people to do," remarked Mitchell

Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties received federal approval in august to use FEMA's emergency alert system. It functions in a manner similar to an Amber Alert, when your cell phone connects to a tower in a danger zone, you receive an alert to evacuate.

Lake County used the system. Sonoma and Mendocino counties did not.

Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said sending out emergency alerts to the entire city of Santa Rosa would have incited panic.

"This county is heavily populated along that 101 corridor, said Sheriff Giordano. Had we had more people trying to evacuate, I'm concerned we would've had more deaths if there were more people trying to get out"

At least 40 people died during the wildfires so far: 22 in Sonoma County, six in Napa County, eight in Mendocino County and four in Yuba County.

Lake County, the only county to issue emergency alerts had zero deaths.

When asked if during a wildfire like the Tubbs fire was a time for panic, Giordano replied, "Yeah, but panic is what gets people killed if you have everyone panicked out on the roads."

For his part, Mitchell said he would like to see an alert system that works better.

"I think it needs a lot of improvement. I hate to point fingers," said Mitchell.

Giordano did say that authorities will be reviewing the emergency response to the fires to assess whether any improvements can be made.

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