USA — SANTA CRUZ A new study on the 2009 Lockheed Fire authored by a Cal Fire captain suggests that social networks and online wildfire maps offer powerful new tools for residents who want fast and potentially life-saving information.
The new media tools also present opportunities and challenges for firefighters and reporters who disseminate news during large fires, the study reported.
Jonathan Cox, a 31-year-old Cal Fire captain in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, recently wrote a thesis for his master’s degree in disaster management at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. This spring, Cox interviewed Santa Cruz Sentinel reporters and editors and Cal Fire public information officers about how they reported news during the Lockheed Fire in August 2009.
The 11-day fire ravaged about 7,700 acres near Bonny Doon and destroyed 13 structures, Cal Fire reported. It was one of five major wildfires in Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties in 2008 and 2009.
During the Lockheed blaze, Cox said county residents gathered information not just through newspapers, television and news websites but also from social networks like Twitter and Facebook.
He also pointed to a Google map of the fire on the Sentinel website that was updated and crowd sourced by reporters and online readers with firsthand accounts. The map included reader-posted photos and more than 2,000 comments from fire observers and others.
The page received more than 800,000 page views.
It’s a huge, valuable resource to have all these people giving information on a fire. But the trick is how you synthesize everything, Cox said.
In that case, Sentinel web editor Tom Moore created the map then asked readers to update known fire boundaries, photos and other information. Sentinel reader Asa Dotzler, who had an extensive computer background, eventually managed the map with updates from readers and reporters.
During county wildfires in previous years, information about the fire’s location, direction and suppression efforts typically flowed top-down from the Cal Fire spokesperson to reporters to the public, Cox said.
Now, Cox said information spreads more laterally and unchecked among Facebook and Twitter users, for instance.
What struck me is that so many people used such innovative means of getting information, Cox said. I think it’s amazing that a person a block away whom I’ve never met could give me information that could save my life.
Obviously, not all the user-generated information on Twitter and Facebook about the fire was accurate. Especially early in that fire, some fire information was exaggerated, Cox wrote in his thesis.
Cox stressed that his research was independent of his role at Cal Fire. However, he said Cal Fire leaders were interested in his findings.
Cox said he studied the topic in Copenhagen in part because he has British citizenship and tuition was discounted. His wife also worked overseas until he finished his research this summer.
Cox holds a business degree from California Polytechnic State University.
During future wildfires in Santa Cruz County, Cox suggested that Cal Fire public information officers try to receive more information from residents who are threatened by the fire rather than just deliver news.
Cal Fire officials in Sacramento now maintain a Google Map of major wildfires in the state and update its Facebook page with statistics like the percentage of the fire’s containment. Cal Fire leaders in Santa Cruz County have not yet taken those steps.
Cox said he hoped that firefighters would strengthen ties with reporters to improve the speed and accuracy of online fire maps.
During wildfires, Cal Fire leaders establish an incident command center on the ground and use a state Cal Fire plane to capture infrared images for their wildfire maps. The plane might fly over a fire once or twice a day depending on its demand in the state, Cox said.
The command post then typically relays information to public information officers who write press releases for reporters and answer questions.
More of that information might be shared faster with the media or on a social network, Cox said.
Also, Cox said he hoped that fire officials might interact with residents beyond the Cal Fire site.
To engage with the public, fire officials could have, for example, created a link to the Sentinel discussion thread, highlighting and supporting the information flow occurring between traditional media and the public, Cox wrote in his thesis.
The power of information is revolutionary for us, Cox said.
ACRES BURNED: 7,718
STARTED: 7:15 p.m. Aug. 12, 2009
CONTAINED: Aug. 23, 2009
LOCATION: Bonny Doon area Smith Creek drainage
CAUSE: An unattended fire on a Lehi Road property spread into the wildland.
STRUCTURES DESTROYED: No houses, but 13 structures, three vehicles and two travel trailers were destroyed.
FIRE CREWS: More than 2,000 firefighters battled the blaze.