Tragedy, Technology and Tough Choices

When June came the grasses headed out and
turned brown, and the hills turned a brown
which was not brown but gold and saffron
and red – an indescribable color. And from
then on until the next rains the earth dried and
the streams stopped

-- John Steinbeck, “East of Eden”

Tragedy struck in the heart of California’s soul this month. The wildfires that burned through the iconic wine country will be remembered on an epic scale of destruction for decades. They will be seared into the historical memory in a way not experienced since San Francisco was obliterated in 1906.

One of the ironies of being so close to Silicon Valley is how digital technologies were not used to their maximum effect to warn of the imminent danger.

Burning the Lion's Fur

I live about 20 miles south of Sonoma, and our terrain is identical. I hike around in the hills constantly (and, when I can, those in the wine country once in a while). October is often stunning, but you can see the built-up potential energy all around you, almost climactic in its scope and scale. It’s as if the entire northern tier of the state is stacked like one epic pile of bone-dry logs, tinder and kindling.

I was in LA and Phoenix for most of the week as the disaster unfolded. Those places are far more arid than Northern California – but the difference is neither of them really have FORESTS.

As a Mediterranean climate -- we actually have a sort of a “green season” and a “gold season”. All summer, the forests get broiled with all sun and no rain, like clockwork (as Steinbeck attests) from May-Oct. The land goes totally golden. And with apologies to Steinbeck, it isn’t “indescribable”: the rolling hills look like a lion’s fur.

The great turn – our seasonal “New Year”, if you will – comes with the first rains, like clockwork (usually) in late October/early November. They change from gold to green. When the first rains fall on the accumulation of dry mountain sage, bay laurel, oaks, the profusion of wild fennel, eucalyptus – and of course the redwoods – it smells amazing, like bosky cinnamon dust (try this gin in a G&T, and you’ll get close).

But you have to run the gauntlet of early fall to get from “gold” to “green”. And if fire starts, you’re moving from “gold” to “black” – or “white” – everything reduced to ash. I personally witnessed the destruction of the October 1991 Oakland Hills fire. But this one was bad – way worse. As of this writing, forty-two people are dead, and 100,000 are displaced. More than 8,400 homes and other buildings were destroyed, more than 160,000 acres burned—and the fires aren't all out yet.

Having the Hard Conversations

Estimates of sustained wind speed reached into the 35-40 miles per hour on the ridges. A cocktail of deadly ingredients was in place. A leading culprit seems to be Pacific Gas & Electric’s power lines and poles that crashed down in the windstorm, sparking the flames like a bellows in front of a blast furnace. That data was likely cataloged -- and could have been synthesized immediately by state-of-the-art sensors and incepted into the latest digital platforms.

A hard conversation my wife and I have had in its wake (and I’m sure many of our neighbors have had, too) is: We’ve cut the landline cord. We don’t have the radio on – or check e-mail - in the middle of the night. What would WE do?

The cold reality is: There but for the grace of God go we.

The Sunday following the disaster, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a terrific “big picture” overview and timeline of events spread across multiple pages. Reading the chronology, you know there will come an inflection point: a pivotal moment when a disaster goes from bad, to worse, to catastrophic. Like Captain Smith on the bridge of the Titanic, the fateful moment seems to have come Monday, October 9, 2017 at 1:30 AM.

  • According to the Chronicle: ”Officials in Sonoma County ... didn’t want to spread panic. They decided against sending out a mass alert to area cell phones to warm of the swiftly spreading flames. Instead warnings were sent by radio, e-mail and other means. Many learned of the fire from people who rushed house to house, knocking and yelling”.
  • And this, from CNN: “methods [to warn those in danger] could include posting warnings and information on social media or using a reverse 911 call to notify landlines. Some agencies also rely on Nixle, a subscription alert service, but residents must opt in to receive its mobile or email alerts.”

Consider the two passages above, and where we are – literally and figuratively – in the year 2017. First off, I count myself as a pretty knowledgeable person on things-technological, but (maybe I should be embarrassed to admit this) this first time I’d heard of a Nixle alert was earlier this year when our town creek threatened to jump its banks. And more than that – a subscription, opt-in service?

Moreover, let’s talk about phones: How many of us have “cut the cord” on cable and telephone landlines because they became increasingly irrelevant to our lives – with constant robo-calls that turned them into little more than the telephone equivalent of interrupt-driven couponing services – that we had to pay for?

Lastly, who is going to be “listening to the radio” at 1:30 on a Sunday (I could insert a joke about fireside chats here, but given the solemnity of the topic, I will not)? Don’t get me wrong - I still think local, terrestrial radio is cool, but maybe driving around in my car up and down the state of California, to get a sense of “what’s going on” in local places. But I’d argue in 2017, it’s far more likely that anyone who’s up that late will likely be surfing the web on the mobile phones, scrolling around social media, etc. than listening to the radio (or even – arguably – watching TV).

In retrospect, it’s clear: texting in a disaster is the optimal method of mass-media. We regularly get texted Amber Alert warnings for unfortunate children, in cities near and far to us, across the entire Bay Area. In a situation like the fires, in hindsight, it’s obvious: the force amplification of many people getting those messages and then getting the word out could've saved lives.

This is NOT a Drill

An instructive lesson on the pros-and-cons of “we don’t want to create a panic” was on full display in earlier this year when the main spillway on massive Lake Oroville in northern California started to collapse. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, afraid of imminent failure of the emergency wall on the auxiliary spillway, sent out an immediate evacuation order, repeating three times: “This is NOT A Drill. This is NOT A Drill. This is NOT A Drill.”

I have family from Oroville, and watched events play out in real-time on Twitter, and when I saw Honea’s message, I could barely believe my eyes. Knowing a bit about the “lay of the land” in Oroville, I immediately went to Google Maps, and could see all the bright red lines of congestion in the middle of the low-lying town as it crosses the Feather River, and I thought: “My God - all those people could be hit by a wall of water at any second”. Thankfully, Honea’s worries did not come to pass, but he made the right call at the right time. And, instructively, all available means of technology were used to get the word out.

As if there was ever any question (and hindsight is 20/20) – my advice to officials is, if in doubt: SEND THE TEXT! SEND THE TEXT! SEND THE TEXT!

Make no mistake: I am so, so sorry for not only the people whose lives were lost, but also the poor emergency management officials and those in charge at PG&E who had to make the tough choices, and also absolutely did save many lives too. To all of them, I say: keep your chin up. We’ll be learning A LOT from this fire – for years. Hopefully one of the lessons is how to use the technologies we have today to lessen the impact of future disasters. As I write, storm clouds are moving in, and rain is on its way. Time to go from gold to green now. And surely, given enough time, the black will give way to green, and the cycle will begin anew. And to the brave firefighters and police – and ordinary citizens – who used their brute force humanity in the face of the tragedy, I salute you.