[Editor’s note: Our ‘Cloud Watch’ columnist Ann Thryft is one of the evacuees affected by the latest Northern California wildfire.]
An hour before receiving that advice we’d evacuated. But after not finding a hotel room anywhere in our sparsely populated, heavily forested mountains, we returned around 10 PM. Maybe we really could sleep in the house, since our local piece of the CZU Complex Lightning Fire was still a few miles off. Maybe it would pass us by.
But when we got back and looked at the sky, it was red. Bright, fire-engine red. At 10:00 PM. After grabbing some last-minute items, we got back in our tiny Hyundai hatchback. With only a two-hour warning, it was already stuffed to the gills with, we hoped, the essentials from our two 50-year-plus lifetimes, and what we’d need for, we hoped, only a week or two.
Then we went back down our only-one-way-out road.
That “one way out, one way in” configuration is nearly identical to that of Paradise, California, destroyed in the now infamous 2018 Camp Fire, the most destructive and expensive California wildfire, and one of the three costliest disasters in world history.
Our fire, “only” the state’s 11th most destructive, has had an enormous impact on small, mostly rural Santa Cruz County. Within three days 77,000 people evacuated from North County and a small part of southern San Mateo county into Santa Cruz, a city with only a few thousand hotel rooms, and beyond. They fled over the hill into Silicon Valley, across San Francisco Bay, into Northern California, and even out of state. After five weeks since evacuation, more than 900 of us are still not home.
During all this time, Santa Cruz County saw even more destruction of homes, disruption of lives and dislocation of citizens than in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
In those first few days, the sheer number of evacuees overwhelmed local infrastructure and support systems: housing, government, social networks, and communications of all kinds. Each day for several days, more and more towns were evacuated. Our local mail went to another town’s Post Office, but then that town evacuated and mail went to a town half an hour away. We heard people were waiting in line there up to four hours before being turned away. Many of us couldn’t get mail for over a month.
Every day vital information changed, and keeping up was exhausting. Social media was both very helpful and typically useless, while often individuals alerted county officials to local problems and each other to resources. The county, though small and with already-strained resources due to Covid-19, righted itself very quickly. County government jumped into action and, with help from the state and a locally famous female U.S. assemblywoman, quickly pulled together resources for evacuees.
But lots of other people slept in that parking lot that night. Two days later we found out homeowners insurance pays for a hotel. It took over a week before we knew whether our house was still standing or had burned to the ground, and more weeks before discovering what happened to our friends and neighbors. In the self-reliant spirit of these mountain communities, many people formed their own volunteer firefighting teams where the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) was stretched too thin, saving many homes.
Half my neighbors lost their homes. We were among the lucky ones: local firefighters saved ours.
Automated systems not set up for exceptions
Yet evacuation doesn’t make anyone feel lucky: it makes us feel like refugees. All this time, Tom Petty’s “Refugee” kept playing in my head, with slightly different lyrics: “Don’t, want, to live like a refugee (Don’t wanna live like a refugee-ee).”
Trying to work remotely, while also functioning daily in the middle of a disaster, has taken on a whole new meaning. Suddenly you have to order all kinds of replacement stuff online — clothes, clothes hangers, meds, your favorite pillow — while wondering where to have it delivered because your hotel keeps changing. Worse are the extremely aggravating barriers created by work-from-home technology that’s supposed to keep all our data secure when we’re “on the road,” whether for a day or a month. (My next column will address this.)
Meanwhile, there’s another technology problem, a basic, nearly invisible one, that’s made many of our lives hell during evacuation. In our local case, there’s also a cultural clash.
Automated systems used by consumers aren’t set up to handle exceptions of any kind: the designers and deployers of these systems don’t expect variety in people’s circumstances, their technology preferences, or technology restrictions, not to mention what happens when much of your data like account numbers is suddenly inaccessible.
Whether it’s bank deposit or credit card accounts, utilities such as electricity, phone, Internet, or the already strained U.S. Post Office, I experienced a lack of recognition of even the existence of possible exceptions about 95% of the time. Yet, as Kevin Sheu pointed out in a recent EE Times interview, everyone is now an exception with remote work, unmanaged devices, and the different types of devices people use.
2FA, I hate you
All of these automated systems assume that everyone has a smartphone, or at minimum a phone that does texting. Lots of us who live in the mountains don’t: we have actual landlines over copper wire, because they always function during a power outage, and computers. I also have an Ethernet connection to my cable modem.
In addition to during a wildfire, power outages happen every winter in the mountains due to poles and lines coming down in storms, not to mention our electric utility’s on-purpose shutdowns. Cell towers often stop functioning as does WiFi. So my cell phone is voice-only, it doesn’t work at my house because I live in one of many cell dead zones, and I only use it for travel. For security reasons, I also prefer to pay bills by mail, like many of my neighbors. Obviously, this is a very different culture and set of expectations from those of nearby Silicon Valley.
Once upon a time, two-factor authentication (2FA) for signing in online allowed you to set options for receiving the verification code — voice call, email, or text — and some still do, at least when users are at home. But when my computer signs in from a new IP address like a hotel, in far too many cases the only 2FA method is a text. For me, that’s a no-op, and means I have to locate a voice phone number, go through ridiculously long menus to get a human, and then convince that human I am who I claim to be. Which can be hard to do when your account numbers are at home somewhere.
To ensure my FICO score didn’t tank during evacuation, I had to do this many, many times to convert payment methods from paper mail to electronic forms. The worst was being subjected to a 45-minute chat with a “tech” at a very large, most-hated-in-the-world ISP provider who kept telling me I could receive status alerts by phone until I was finally told no, my only option was a text. Yet NIST began discouraging the use of SMS messages for multi-factor authorization four years ago.
Natural disasters mean exceptions will be required
This year, California’s wildfire season began early, and its scale is difficult to comprehend. The burn scars from our CZU and two larger fires north of ours can be seen from space. In the CZU Lightning Complex Fire alone, 87,000 acres burned over five weeks before Cal Fire declared it 99% contained.
If I have a conclusion, aside from my newfound personal sense of community, it’s that Nature is big and powerful. But us? Not so much. Our systems, automated and otherwise, are simply not set up for disasters on this scale. That needs to be fixed, and soon.