State and Local Officials Failed Californians Fleeing Wildfires, Audit Finds

(CN) – Three California counties most affected by wildfires over the last few years and the state’s emergency services agency failed to adequately prepare those communities for destructive fires and other natural disasters, according to a state audit released Thursday.

Emergency personnel evacuate patients as the Feather River Hospital burns while the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

The audit found the counties of Butte, Sonoma and Ventura lacked adequate plans to alert, evacuate and shelter people during emergencies, especially vulnerable groups of seniors and people with disabilities.

“Although everyone is vulnerable during a natural disaster, people with access and functional needs are even more vulnerable,” the audit states.

Of the 114 people killed in natural disasters in those counties over the last five years, 108, or nearly 95%, were seniors at least 65 years old or had a disability, according to the audit.

The report found the counties failed to follow Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) best practices for emergency planning, including updating preparedness plans every two years. It also found the counties did not involve people with different types of disabilities in their planning processes to ensure their needs will be met during an emergency.

The audit specifically admonished Ventura County for failing to issue alerts and warning messages during the 2017 Thomas Fire in languages other than English, even though 14% of the county’s residents have limited English proficiency.

State Auditor Elaine Howle also faulted California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) for not complying with a state law requiring it provide guidance to local governments on strategies for identifying people with special needs during emergencies.

The state’s emergency services agency also failed to involve people with different needs and limitations in its own plans, resulting in alert and warning guidelines that lacked information on how to alert people with hearing impairments.

“Local jurisdictions rely on Cal OES’s plans and guidance to determine how to conduct their own planning,” the audit stated. “If Cal OES’s plans and guidance do not fully address access and functional needs, local jurisdictions’ plans may not either.”

The state agency has also been violating a state law mandating it issue reviews of emergency response operations within 120 days after a disaster ends. Despite that requirement, the agency’s last after-action report was for a disaster that occurred in February 2015. The report was issued more than four years later, in May 2019.

Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, blasted Cal OES in a statement Thursday.

“This is complete negligence on the part of Cal OES,” Lackey said. “These vulnerable populations are two to four times more likely to die as a result of a natural disaster and the very government entity responsible for protecting them is willfully defying state law.”

Lackey asked the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC) to authorize Howle’s office to review California’s emergency plans relating to the individuals with disabilities and of older age in response to the 85 individuals who lost their lives in the Camp Fire, eight of whom were elderly or disabled.

Howle recommended Cal OES issue a guidance no later than June 2020 to instruct local jurisdictions on how to best assess the needs of seniors and people with disabilities for their emergency plans.

Turning to the counties, the audit found no counties complied with FEMA best practices by having prearranged contracts with vendors to provide shelter and transportation during an emergency. Butte County has prearranged contracts for shelter space, but it lacked agreements for vendors to provide transportation, according to the audit.

Butte County Chief Administrator Shari McCracken explained the county has an emergency transportation plan in place through the Butte County Association of Governments (BCAG). She said the county doesn’t need a contract with the joint powers agency because it need only pick up the phone and ask BCAG to send buses. Despite that informal arrangement, McCracken said she is working on getting the joint powers authority to commit in writing that it will provide buses during emergencies.

The audit also found Butte County – which saw the Camp Fire tear through its communities in late 2018 – had an out-of-date emergency preparedness plan in place from 2011. FEMA recommends jurisdictions update their plans every two years.

McCracken said she thought that standard was “ridiculous,” noting a five-year update cycle would be more feasible for a rural county with limited resources.

The administrator said the county was in the process of updating its plan when it was hit by a series of unrelenting disasters starting in 2016. The county’s emergency services staff has been taxed focusing on response and recovery, but it plans to get a request for proposals out for an updated plan next year, she said.

McCracken added that she appreciates the state auditor’s review and recommendations, but she does not agree with all the findings.

“We agree our plan is out of date, but we don’t agree that means we don’t do a good job of responding to disasters,” she said.

The audit also recommends that each county adopt ordinances requiring adherence to the best practices and guidelines issued by FEMA and its state counterpart. It further suggests that California, like Florida and Texas, adopt a state law requiring the state’s emergency services agency periodically review local jurisdictions’ emergency management plans.

Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, said he thinks the audit identified several ways to improve emergency response and preparedness in communities most affected by wildfires in recent years. However, he strongly disputed any hint of criticism aimed at first responders to the Camp Fire, the most destructive wildfire in state history.

“These people took heroic actions and had to make decisions in a matter of seconds,” Gallagher said. “The ideal conditions that might be present in a book of best practices were nowhere to be found.”

He said the state and county officials should always look for ways to improve while acknowledging, “there is no perfect plan that will address every scenario.”

Representing Sonoma County, State Senator Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said he fully supports taking all steps necessary to improve emergency response and preparedness.

“Being proactive can literally save lives, and I appreciate the auditor looking into this critical issue,” Dodd said. “I will be working with Cal OES and others to advance greater planning and support, especially for our most vulnerable residents.”

Also Thursday, state Insurance Commissioner Richard Lara put a one-year moratorium on insurance companies issuing nonrenewal notices to at least 800,000 property owners in wildfire disaster areas across the state.

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