One of Orange County’s hidden jewels are its canyons, a network of trails and dirt roads that create a remote enclave just minutes away from the urban heart of the county.  

Yet these canyons often become dangerous places to live, with frequent evacuations for wildfires and the inevitable mudslides that follow them.

For years, first responders have struggled to get information out to residents in a timely manner, leading to confusion over who is supposed to evacuate and where to. 

As a result, many of those residents don’t look to the county when they see smoke from their backyard or the first drops of rain on an empty hillside. 

They look to people like Joanne Hubble. 

A canyon resident for over 40 years, Hubble runs an email list with over 2,300 subscribers, keeping subscribers up to date on any evacuation orders or events in the canyons. 

She also runs a Twitter page with news about the canyons and helps coordinate evacuations with other residents year round. 

Hubble said she started her email after the 2007 Santiago Fire ripped through the canyons and the lack of communication from government agencies left residents in the dark for days. 

Watching the fire burn through the canyons on local news channels from her hotel room, Hubble said she couldn’t get any information or find out what happened to any of her neighbors. 

“I surfed nine different news channels all day long. Every day, for days. I couldn’t find anything,” Hubble said. “There was no communication, no one could get a hold of anybody…there was no help from anywhere.”

I decided that will never happen again, because it was the most awful feeling I’ve had in my entire life.

Joanne Hubble

Challenges Evacuating OC Canyons

Silverado Canyon on Dec. 22, 2022. Credit: LIZETH MARTINEZ, Voice of OC

In the last three years alone, canyon residents have had to evacuate for three different wildfires and a series of mudslides that followed them, and there were multiple instances where county leaders issued conflicting information on who did or didn’t need to evacuate. 

[Read: Failure to Communicate: Orange County Wildfires Highlight Long Standing Emergency Communication Problems]

In 2018, a grand jury even looked at the problem, laying out a series of recommendations on how county leaders could better communicate with residents during natural disasters after problems in the Canyon 2 and Jim Fires. 

To read their report, click here

In 2020, power in the canyons was cut off at the start of the Bond Fire, forcing residents to drive to the nearest fire station to alert the fire department and go door to door telling their neighbors to get out. 

[Read: As OC Bond Fire Evacuations End, Residents Call Out Failures in Wildfire Emergency Communications]

Laura Bennett, who’s lived up in the canyons for decades, said she found out about the Bond Fire from one of her neighbors driving up the hillside honking at people to get out of bed.  

“We’d just gotten to bed, it was like 12:30 a.m., and he’s like, ‘Get out, there’s a fire, it’s coming right now,’” Bennett said. “We went out on our deck and we’re like, ‘Oh, the whole hillside’s glowing.’”

During the evacuations, Joanne is usually found on her radio and computer, sending out email blasts to residents and trying to help coordinate and disseminate information. 

She also has a landline set up that works when the power goes out, a rarity up in the canyons that she says is a leftover from when she worked at AT&T. 

“That’s what Joanne always does,” Bennett said. “Everybody else is panicking, Joanne gets on, she lets everybody else know what’s going on.” 

Living in the Canyons

Credit: LIZETH MARTINEZ, Voice of OC

Despite those fire risks, the people who live there have no plans to leave, citing the tight knit community of neighbors and friends that create a more rural town in the middle of Southern California. 

“We’ve had 13 mudslides in the last year,” Bennett said in an interview last May. “But every time people I don’t know in the canyon will show up, you know they’re my neighbors but I don’t know them, and they’ll just show up with shovels, knock on the door and say ‘What can we do how can we help?’”

“It’s been so incredibly touching.” 

There isn’t a streetlight to be seen, and almost every house has a private property sign hung on the front gate. Horses and the occasional stray turkey are a common sight on a network of one way roads that snake through the handful of canyons thousands of Orange County residents call home. 

“We could put a blindfold on and plop you here and you will never know you’re in Orange County,” said Lisha Sante, a resident of Modjeska Canyon who moved in a little over two years ago after living in the city of Orange for years. “I’m never moving again.” 

Hubble, who’s lived in the canyons since she was 18, said after coming from a broken home the canyons were the first time she ever found a real family. 

“Everybody that I met in Silverado…took me in and then became my family. And I felt like I actually had people,” Hubble said. “That was the spirit that kept me going.” 

The Voice of the Canyons

Joanne Hubble photographed in her neighborhood on Dec. 16, 2022. Credit: LIZETH MARTINEZ, Voice of OC

Bennett said she recommends Joanne’s email list to anyone and everyone if they’re looking for the most up to date information during emergencies. 

“We’ve had new neighbors move in and the first thing we tell them is, ‘Oh, here you have to sign up for Joanne’s email because if anything goes wrong, she’ll let you know,’” Bennett said. 

Sante echoed similar praise. 

“I’ve never lived in a canyon without Joanne and I don’t want to.”

On Nov. 8, the county issued a mandatory evacuation for homes in the Silverado, Williams and Modjeska Canyon areas that were affected by the Bond Fire, with concerns the rain could lead to another landslide in the area. 

But Hubble was already out organizing people and getting them ready to evacuate two days earlier, sending out a notice from the National Weather Service that they were under a flash flood watch and urging people to make a plan. 

“This will impact Silverado Canyon the most. There is a potential for mud flows once again,” Hubble wrote in her email at 10:25 p.m. on Nov. 6. “Please-be prepared and have a plan. If we are told to evacuate additional information will be made available at that time.” 

Later that month, she also sent out a note to residents about the OC Fire Authority’s efforts to handle beetle infestations in the canyons’ trees, urging residents to allow inspectors on their land to search for the bugs and connecting residents with more information. 

“We need this done ASAP, since we want to finish surveys by the end of the year if possible in order to begin tree treatments next spring,” Hubble wrote. “With major drought already stressing our trees, they need all the help we can give them.” 

How Does a Volunteer Outdo Taxpayer-Funded Public Safety Agencies?

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes at the Silverado and Blue Ridge Fires live update on Facebook on Oct. 27, 2020. Credit: Orange County Fire Authority Facebook Live

Hubble’s work opens up a big question for some residents: how does one Orange County resident communicate more effectively with her neighbors than the $8 billion county government does? 

The Orange County Sheriffs’ Department, which manages evacuations for the canyons, declined to sit down with Voice of OC reporters, answering questions exclusively via email. 

When asked what their plans were to communicate with canyon residents during wildfires, the county laid out a variety of methods they use in a statement.

“The County has developed a layered approach to issuing evacuation notices in anticipation that power and telecommunications may be impacted during disasters. These methods range from technology-based (phone and text messages, radio and television alerts, social media posts) to human-based (door knocks and vehicle public address systems).”

Alert OC, the county’s emergency messaging system, has 1,401 users in the canyons according to the sheriffs’ department, along with another 335 landlines.

But when wildfires happen in the canyons, the power is usually cut off by Southern California Edison, cutting off power to the cell tower and knocking out just about every method other than going door to door. 

“My family, which has landlines as well as cell phones, were able to receive official evacuation notices only after we left the canyon,” said one anonymous comment submitted to OCFA online during a public safety workshop following the Bond Fire. “The notices had been sent much earlier, but we had no idea.”

When asked what the county’s contingency plans were for an electrical failure, sheriff officials said they use public microphone systems. 

“We also use in-car speakers and the helicopter to make public address announcements.”

When asked about Hubble’s newsletter and similar efforts, Michelle Anderson, director of the department’s emergency management division, said it was normal for the county to rely on community groups for more help, listing half a dozen different groups and organizations in the canyons. 

“The County relies upon leaders within the canyons to amplify the messages sent out during disasters through press releases and social media,” Anderson said in a statement to Voice of OC. “During all disasters, government agencies rely on active community groups, leaders, and the media to amplify the reach of first responder messages.” 

Efforts to Improve

Firefighters putting out a small active fire by the side of Silverado Canyon Road due to the Bond Fire on Dec. 3, 2020. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

When asked what improvements had been implemented following complaints that the county’s evacuation system wasn’t doing enough, the sheriff’s department identified two upgrades. 

“The County now adds a link to the information to its website landing page and has embedded a GIS map that shows evacuation status and is searchable by the public for specific addresses,” Anderson said. 

“The County may also establish a hotline with live operators during disasters,” she added. 

County supervisor Don Wagner, whose district covers the canyons, said that while Hubble does fantastic work, most of the information she passes along is out there for anyone who looks. 

“The official information is available to everyone,” Wagner said in an interview with Voice of OC. “We urge all the folks to pay attention.” 

But when asked about improving disaster communication in the canyons, Wagner admitted there’s room for improvement.

He added the county was working with Southern California Edison to try and keep the power on during emergencies and speaking with cellular companies about setting up mobile, back up cell towers to ensure people could get information.

“Improvements are being made,” Wagner said, “and I don’t intend to stop.”

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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