Information matters, especially during a wildfire, when there can be too much.
Sara Rubin here, writing this intro then unplugging for a few days.
In the almost two weeks since the River Fire started, followed in rapid succession by the Carmel Fire then the Dolan Fire, there have been highs and lows, stories of grief tempered by stories of endurance and kindness. There have been some 31,000 Monterey County residents ordered to evacuate, and more than double that who faced evacuation warnings. There are at least 100 families who won’t go home again, as the count of homes lost ticks higher.
There’s also been an unrelenting stream of information, some of it through word of mouth, some through automated emergency alert systems via text, some through social media. And with it, the rumor mill has been churning.
Chatter about wildfires spreads, well, like wildfire. And that promoted Sheriff Steve Bernal, during a briefing on Aug. 21, to ask people to stop making unsubstantiated claims—specifically about looters roaming through evacuated neighborhoods, when the Sheriff’s Department had received no such reports. “It makes our job a lot tougher when we have to deal with rumors going around. We appreciate you just posting factual events that are happening in regards to the fire,” Bernal said.
Where and how to get the best information as a disaster unfolds? The Monterey County Office of Emergency Services has stepped up in a big way, with easy-to-search interactive maps, searchable by address, to help you see if you live in an area under evacuation. (Although I’d heard this system isn’t very effective from smartphones.)
Cal Fire and U.S. Forest Service officials, with the sheriff, have been doing at least daily briefings viewable on Facebook. They’re a good pandemic-era substitute for the crowded town hall meetings in high school gyms, and also an opportunity for hundreds of people to tune in and hear an update.
Many of those people posted thoughtful and specific questions in the Facebook briefings, although only a handful of questions actually got answered. (That’s one advantage of an in-person meeting in the gym; you can demand answers to your questions.) Here’s a small sample of some of those questions:
“Which routes out of the Valley will work best if we need to evacuate?”
“How far south has the River Fire advanced?
“What is the likelihood that Corral de Tierra will be evacuated?”
“Will it reach East Garrison?”
“Is there a chance the fires will connect?”
Amid all of the question-asking, urgent and frenzied and anxious, getting good information was critical, and social media rumor mill could be a hazard for people wanting to know if they had to evacuate, or if their home still stood.
That’s why it was particularly alarming to hear Cal Fire Public Information Officer Isaac Sanchez with this followup to Bernal’s remarks. “We see reports of emergencies and reports of new fires, but they’re being reported by social media,” Sanchez said. “I can’t tell you how distressing that is to me personally. That is not the appropriate platform to be reporting emergencies.” (The proper platform, he added, is calling 911.)
Good information can be hard to come by in the middle of a disaster. Neighbors rely on the neighbors who stayed behind despite evacuation orders, members of the press, firefighters to get information on whether their homes are still standing, or to rescue their pets. Mary De Groat of Cachagua describes the first few days of the Carmel Fire as constant crying—fire, the relief that her house survived, then the grief that it didn’t—then, after all that (and having to re-evacute from where she’d landed with friends near Carmel Valley Village), that her house had indeed survived. “It was just a ridiculous rollercoaster ride of information,” she says.
Information at a time like this can be especially high-stakes. Good, reliable information becomes a matter of safety.
-Sara Rubin, editor, firstname.lastname@example.org