The summer of 1970 in California was the hottest anyone could remember. In the foothills away from the coast it hit a hundred degrees, day after day. California has seen its share of legendary droughts, but as the summer wore on, it kept not raining. Not a drop of rain since June.
Then came the Diablos—those high, hot winds that blow west from the inland deserts, sometimes gusting to hurricane strength. They blew all day long, transforming the forests and everything in them—shrubs, grass, bark, branches, even the soil itself—into fuel.
When the humidity dropped below two percent, firefighters sensed the epic battle aheadSeptember rolled around. The wind kept blowing, and the terrain kept getting drier. When the humidity dropped below two percent, firefighters sensed the epic battle ahead. They tied up loose ends, poured coffee, and settled in, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And then, finally, it did. Someone set a match to tinder-dry grass along Fish Ranch Road in the Oakland Hills east of the University of California, Berkeley campus. Within minutes, the flames, feeding on dry coyote brush and pine trees and whipped by those Diablo winds, swept to the ridgetop and leaped into homes perched on the steep hillside above San Francisco Bay.
Formal investigations found that a series of mistakes had compounded the disaster.After thirteen days of fire, firefighters managed to stabilize the disaster. They had done a remarkable job considering the conditions they faced. But, despite their Herculean efforts, the public was stunned by the scale of the devastation and the fire services were criticized for what was widely perceived to be a mismanaged response. Formal investigations found that a series of mistakes had compounded the disaster. These were not tactical mistakes or a lack of resources but management and communication failures. 
National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control
To find a way forward, President Nixon created the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control. In May 1973 it issued a report entitled “America Burning,” which concluded that “fire is a major national problem.” Congress ordered the US Forest Service to fund a five-year research program called the Firefighting Resources of Southern California Organized for Potential Emergencies program, or FIRESCOPE . The FIRESCOPE research team created a brand new fire management system. It called this new system the Incident Command System, or ICS. Within ten years, ICS would be in use throughout Southern California and spreading across the country. Fifty years later, the Incident Command System is standard practice not only in the United States but in many other nations around the world. 
Because it works. It is simple to learn and use and versatile enough to bring order to the chaos of any type of disaster, not just wildfires. And it is scalable, meaning it can handle everything from a car accident to a catastrophic earthquake.
But in spite of our best efforts, the aftermath of every catastrophe includes a period of finger-pointingBut in spite of our best efforts, the aftermath of every catastrophe includes a period of finger-pointing, and in California, it has already begun. With nearly 10,000 firefighters battling the staggeringly devastating Camp Fire raging across dry desert mountains, questions about emergency warning – what the people in the path of the fire were told and when they were told it – loom large.
Why, for instance, as the massive Camp Fire roared up the Sierra Nevada foothills toward the doomed town of Paradise, didn’t Butte County do more to warn its residents? The Butte County sheriff’s office says it did notify its citizens about the danger: over 10,000 emails and text messages were sent, and over 25,000 phone calls made. But only people who had registered with the County’s Code Red system received them. The more powerful system – FEMA’s Wireless Emergency Alert, or WEA – that pushes alerts to all cell phone users in an affected area, was not used.
Why doesn’t California have a statewide emergency warning system that can send an immediate and consistent message to its residents in the early minutes of a catastrophe?And what of the state? Why doesn’t California have a statewide emergency warning system that can send an immediate and consistent message to its residents in the early minutes of a catastrophe? Why instead does it choose to face a dangerous future with 58 county warning systems duct-taped together, with 58 different processes and capabilities? Because it is precisely these 58 counties that cannot help but be overwhelmed in the early minutes of the catastrophe, when they need to get resources to scene, understand and control the situation on the ground and rescue trapped seniors.
Bringing order to the chaos
Mistakes and blunders are unavoidable in the parallel universe, so these agencies shouldn’t be blamed for doing their jobs as they understand them. But the truth is that the public deserves better. And, as we face the trauma of climate change and 1000-year disasters on an almost monthly basis, it is time to bring order to the chaos of our sprawling and fractured public warning system.
Half a century after Fish Ranch Road, we need another national commission, a new FIRESCOPE, to create a 21st Century system that can warn us about looming wildfires, incoming missiles and all of the other bad things we can’t yet even think of.
 “Paradise Fire survivors say warnings were too little, too late”, By James Rainey, NBC News, 14 November 2018, accessed at https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/paradise-fire-survivors-say-warnings-were-too-little-too-late-n935846
 California Office of Emergency Services, Some Highlights of the Evolution of the Incident Command System as Developed by FIRESCOPE, California Office of Emergency Services, March 26, 2003
 Daryl Osby, Ken Kehmna, Firefighting Resources of Southern California Organized for Potential Emergencies (FIRESCOPE), accessed at https://www.firescope.org/index.php
 The Fires that created an Incident Management System, by Dale D. Rowley, Case Study, accessed at http://www.uninets.net/~dsrowley/The%20Fires%20that%20Created%20an%20IMS.pdf
 “As California’s deadliest wildfire closed in, evacuation orders were slow to arrive”, By Joseph Serna, Paige St. John and Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times, 15 November 2018, accessed at http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-paradise-fire-evacuations-20181114-story.html
 “Why it’s so hard to issue a fire warning”, By Andrew Freeman, Axios, 15 November 2018, accessed at https://www.axios.com/california-camp-fire-why-no-warning-cb62b3a0-4820-4289-8be0-4ac9cebe2519.html