Australia — As the worst bushfires in Australia’s history raged across Victoria, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook lit up with condolences and horrific first-hand accounts, while many used innovative online mapping tools to assess the risk of the fires reaching their own homes.
Mainstream news outlets, battling to provide comprehensive coverage of the tragedy, have incorporated accounts published on the social networking sites extensively in their reports.
Using online social media to spread vital information and personal stories is becoming increasingly commonplace in times of crisis, but this may be the first time the social networking sites have been used extensively during an Australian disaster.
Google’s engineers have created amap containing the latest up-to-date information about fire locations and their status, based on data provided by Victoria’s Country Fire Authority (CFA).
The map, updated in real-time with information about the number, type and size of fires in a particular location, buckled as thousands of web users sought out updates. But the site appeared to be working as normal this morning.
Google created the map after the CFA’s website struggled to cope with the surge in people looking for information about the fires.
“We hope that it’s of some use to people who may be affected, to emergency services personnel, and that it takes some load off other websites which are being inundated,” Google wrote in a blog post.
Aus-emaps.com created itsown map of the fire locations – derived from data provided by Federal Government body Geoscience Australia through its Sentinel national bushfire monitoring system – before Google but also reported slowdowns due to high demand.
And NASA has published satellite images showing the bushfireshere.
On Twitter, “bushfires” is as of this morning the No.1 “trending topic” as users traded first-hand accounts, news, and information on how to donate and seek help.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, through hisTwitter account, has published messages telling his 7000 followers how to make cash and blood donations, find out more information on the fires and seek emergency Government assistance.
“Red Cross donation page is down, which is a good sign,” wrote steven-lewis.
Another users, carloscomputers, wrote: “My thoughts go out to those affected by the bushfires. I really feel for you poor buggers.”
One Twitter member and volunteer firefighter, cfavolunteer, has been postingupdates on his progress since late January.
Yesterday, he wrote he had “experienced and seen things today that no one should ever see”.
He added: “7th February 2009 will go down in history for all the wrong reasons. I hope people are safe, especially after what I have seen.”
CFA has even created its own Twitter account,CFA_News, to aggregate the latest news updates on the fires.
Another unofficial Twitter account providing information on the fires,cfa_updates, has published over 9000 messages and has 330 followers.
On Flickr, Victorians flooded the site with amateur images of their fire-ravaged state.
A large array of photographs can be found in thespecial Flickr group created to collate images of the fires.
On Facebook, at least three groups have been created in remembrance of those who lost their lives in the bushfires. Thebiggest, “Applaud the CFA heroes & empathise with the victims of the 09 Vic bushfires”, has almost 7500 members.
“Without the selflessness of the people on the fireground and those unsung people behind the scenes this tragedy could unbelievably have been much worse,” wrote Facebook user Marci Medley among scores of other tributes.