Social media good and bad for crews battling Rim wildfire

Social media good and bad for crews battling Rim wildfire

27 August 2013

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USA — The power of social media to disseminate information almost immediately is both a help and a hinderance to those working the Rim fire.

“One of the biggest problems we have had is social media,” Tuolumne Utilities District spokeswoman Lisa Westbrook said last week. The Rim fire has been burning in Tuolumne and Mariposa counties, spreading into Yosemite National Park as it grew to nearly 150,000 acres.

Westbrook said people are posting fire information on Facebook about where the blaze is heading or which neighborhoods are being evacuated, and the information is wrong.

Deputies and firefighters have to spend valuable time getting the correct information out.

Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Johnson agreed.

“Early on in the fire it was put out that Groveland firehouse burned down,” he said, adding dryly, “that would be a surprise to the firefighters sleeping there.”

Another rumor that spread nearly as fast as the wildfire itself was that there had been an arson arrest in the case. The cause of the fire, which began the afternoon of Aug. 17, remains under investigation.

“The problem is there’s no way of verifying that information,” Johnson said. “If people didn’t exaggerate things and actually gave out factual information it would be a very good tool.”

There are official Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and websites associated with the agencies fighting the fire, and Johnson said those are good places to look for information.

“The problem is, a lot of times it’s just ‘Mary Smith saw …’ ” he said.

On the positive side, a lot of people have used social media to bring help to those affected by the fire.

Facebook is rife with residents of neighboring communities gathering supplies or posting offers of homes for displaced pets or livestock. And the Groveland Facebook page has been turned into a repository for updates, questions and concerned sentiments for those whose homes are threatened.

A group from the Oakdale Saddle Club started a drive for baby wipes, sports drinks, water and other items that could be of use to Saddle Club members in Tuolumne County, as well as other residents.

“We’re not an organization, we’re just a group of people that got together to do this,” said Jennifer Jordan.

It really took off when they put together a Facebook page, organizer Cortney Napier said: “That’s the power of Facebook.”

Fliers spread over social media

Volunteers set up drop sites where they collect donations and load them in a horse trailer to bring them up the hill.

“It’s been really great,” said Amanda Jones, another organizer. “Once we put the fliers on Facebook, people started sharing it and it went from there.”

Most of the donations have come from the area, with people from as far away as Los Banos leaving items at the Yogurt Station in Oakdale, a drop spot for the effort. But it goes farther afield than that — a woman from Texas called Jordan, wanting to contribute.

“We’re just doing what we can to help,” Jones said. “People that we never met before, they’re just coming out of the woodwork, wanting to know, ‘What can I do?’ “

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine contributed to this report.

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