Officials release 911 calls from onset of deadly Calif. wildfire
The calls offer a chilling glimpse into the moments when the Camp fire arrived at the Butte County’s doorstep
By Megan Cassidy
BUTTE COUNTY, Calif. — At 6:33 a.m. on Nov. 8, a Butte County dispatcher answered what was among the first emergency calls in what would become the deadliest wildfire in California history: A “powerline transformer sparked and there is a fire,” the Magalia caller reported.
By just after 8 a.m., residents of Concow and Magalia were phoning in a panic — some of them trapped and needing rescue and others frantically alerting authorities to parents and grandparents in harm’s way, according to Butte County dispatchers’ logs.
“Her grandfather is at the location fighting off the fire but can not get out,” a dispatcher wrote of an 8:10 a.m. call regarding a man on Green Forest Lane in Concow.
A minute later, a call came from a resident on Hoffman Road: “Caller advised her house is on fire and she can not get out. Her mother is stuck and she can not move her. Call had disconnected. Dispatch tried to call back and it was a busy signal.”
Butte County officials on Thursday released the emergency call logs from the Camp Fire’s onset last month, offering a chilling glimpse into the moments when the inferno arrived at the community’s doorstep.
The logs covering the areas surrounding the community of Paradise give the first public view of the hundreds of 911 calls that came in on that morning as the massive tragedy unfolded. Some calls from Paradise were included in the logs, but the city also had its own, separate dispatch center.
The fire’s death toll stands at 86.
The Butte County Sheriff’s Office attempted to dispatch as many on-foot patrols as possible to help callers flee, but the reports soon became overwhelming, said Megan McMann, community relations coordinator, Butte County Sheriff's Office.
“It was pretty chaotic,” said McMann, who witnessed the operations unfolding from the office in Oroville. “It was scary, there were just so many things going through everyone’s minds. We were scared for the people, scared for the deputies.”
Throughout the day the Sheriff’s Office rolled out various evacuation orders and warnings, issued on an opt-in system called CodeRed. But records reviewed by The Chronicle show the alerts’ results were mixed.
Of the calls made to landlines and opt-in mobile numbers, only about 60 percent (15,000 of 25,000) were delivered, either live or to an answering machine. The rest were met with busy signals, operator intercepts or the call timed out.
The county declined to issue an Amber Alert-style message, which would have reached all cell phones in the area, rather than just the numbers that had signed up.
Hundreds of calls rolled in throughout the day, amid the county’s numerous evacuation alerts. Some reported that they were trapped, and others were unable to reach a loved one in the fire’s path. A few included non-fire-related calls and calls from other parts of the county, and reports from deputies actively responding to incidents.
In Magalia, an 11-year-old child had stayed home from school, and her parents couldn’t get home to get her out. Nearby, there was a 95-year-old woman who didn’t walk. A Magalia man’s wife and children had no transportation and no way to get out. Someone on Honey Run Road in Chico was bedridden, had no way out, and needed an ambulance. Several were elderly, disabled or unreachable.
At the end of each report, the dispatcher made a brief note of the call’s outcome. Some offered brief signals of relief or even heroism. The 95-year-old woman who couldn’t walk was gone upon arrival. And the quadriplegic person who was bedridden received outside assistance.
The dispatcher did not give a disposition for the 11-year-old. No children have been identified as victims of the fire.
For others, the note struck an ominous tone. Many ended with “unable to locate.”
“Unable to reach brother,” read one regarding a man in Concow. “Disposition: Destroyed by Fire.”
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