Residents hungry for fire-related news look to a variety of social media sources

By Marcy Stamper

Posts like these pepper the Crescent Mountain Fire Facebook page:

Really appreciate the communication. It’s not as scary when we know what’s going on. Whether it’s good news or not, I feel better understanding exactly where we stand.

Thanks so much for doing these [videos]. It is like must watch TV for us. The more the better!!!

The explanations help keep us sane!

For people who’ve spent more than a month living with the threat of wildfire, the daily updates and videos posted by the fire-management teams have proven surprisingly reassuring.

The teams that manage the fires use as many tools as possible to reach the public, said Derek Ibarguen, a public information officer (PIO) with the Northern Rockies National Incident Management Team that took control of the fire last week.

Ibarguen said they rely on the official updates and maps on InciWeb, the national fire-information system, plus real-time morning and evening video updates on a Facebook page called “Crescent Mountain Fire” that is run by the incident management team working on the McLeod and Crescent Mountain fires. The teams also update sandwich boards at about 30 real-world sites from Twisp to Mazama every day.

Occasionally they add a special online video about weather, aircraft and helicopter strategy, or assessing fire safety around houses.

PIOs take photos and videos on the fire line and also ask firefighters to keep an eye out for great pictures that tell the story about work they’re doing in the field, said Todd Schroeder, a PIO with the Southern Area Blue Team that transitioned to the Northern Rockies team.

“Not every fire is the same. We’ve found here the best way to reach people is on Facebook — by far,” said Schroeder. Public meetings, some of which have drawn more than 400 attendees, have also been helpful, he said.

The PIOs log the phone calls they get and track Facebook hits. Most interactions come from the morning and evening fire updates and human-interest stories, said Schroeder.

“When there’s uncertainty and nervousness, the call volume is higher,” said Schroeder, who said they got 30 calls a day when the fire was most active — instead of a handful. “Most of the time, people want to know the news, good or bad, so they can take action.”

Inadvertently ‘fake’ news

While there’s no indication that anyone is intentionally posting inaccurate information on Facebook, people sometimes share information without understanding the whole context.

Maps, in particular, lend themselves to misinterpretation, said Okanogan County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall. “Social media is a good way for someone to be home and get information. You don’t need to go to the meeting,” said Goodall. “But it needs to be from a trusted source.”

Goodall said people often find infrared maps online. “People start sharing it without knowing this is a tool that has to be interpreted. That gets people scared,” he said.

On their Facebook page, the fire team specifically addressed the reliability of maps. “We try to share information as quickly as possible, but we realize there is a lag time between when infrared data becomes available and when we can incorporate that data into other map products. All maps are not real-time information, but a representation of a snapshot at a given moment,” they said.

Winthrop resident Tom Forker, who regularly checks the Crescent Mountain Facebook feed and other online sources, said he asked about hot spots he found on infrared satellite photos. The PIO explained that hot spots could be caused by idling engines or embers in a smoke column, said Forker.

A small group of people — often the same individuals — tend to post incorrect information on the county’s Emergency Management Facebook page, said Goodall. “They throw out words. It’s not face-to-face, but behind a computer screen,” he said.

But once they post or comment on something, it becomes “fact,” said Goodall. “It’s easy to throw an idea out there that’s not trustworthy.”

When that happens, Goodall asks the person to call him so he can find out where the information came from and explain the situation. “It could be bad information they’ve shared from somebody else’s post [or comment] — it could be an evacuation level or something that’s just not true. They usually say they didn’t know and take it down themselves,” he said.

Goodall doesn’t delete comments, but he hides the ones that contain foul language, although even that’s happened only a few times. “I want people to be able to come to my site and get the correct information,” said Goodall.

The fire teams also don’t block or delete Facebook comments, even if they’re offensive. “If we get a response that’s assertive or overly aggressive, we’ll keep that up, too,” said Schroeder. Depending on the subject, a team member may respond privately to the individual or post the response on the site for everyone to see.

Although Forker has frequently commended the crew for their work, he’s also offered suggestions for improving their videos, such as when to zoom in on the map or eliminate background noise. After seeing a particularly good video, he wrote the team to suggest archiving it as an example of optimal production values.

Raising expectations

With so much information online, the absence of information can make people jittery. People began posting comments seeking an update.

Pretty smoky here: What’s burning? No new news?

Looooong time without an update. Anyone home out there?

On Sunday (Sept. 2), after the morning video discussed a forecast for strong winds that could test the fire lines, Forker found himself anxiously awaiting an evening report. His anxiety only grew when the video wasn’t posted until 10:30 at night, he said.

That video was delayed because of internet issues, said PIO Ibarguen. “It was frustrating on our part. We want to meet expectations, but you never know what will happen,” he said.

Forker said he understands the tricky balance that fire teams and emergency personnel have to strike. “I sometimes think they sugarcoat things,” he said. “I can see why they don’t want to alarm people, but if there’s a need to be alarmed, I want bells to ring.”

Personal connections

After watching daily video briefings and seeing the fire teams at meetings, people seem to feel a personal connection. Many Facebook comments thank crew members by name or praise their presentation.

We cannot compliment you enough for your clear, forthright, honest, unassuming reports, sometimes tinged with a bit of welcome humor. [You’re a] memorable Video Rock Star!

Still, most Facebook comments are brief, primarily to let the fire teams know how much they’re appreciated and that their safety is paramount.

Most people seem to feel the flow of information has improved compared with past fire seasons.

The communication has been WAY better this year and your efforts are Greatly Appreciated!  🙂

“What we try to do here is come into an emergency situation and provide management skills and calmness,” said Schroeder. “We serve victims of a natural disaster or emergency. We want to get the truth to people in the most efficient and expeditious manner we can, to keep firefighters and the public safe.”

“All in all, social media is a good tool, but there are times where people have to understand who’s saying it, what’s the source — and is it true?” said Goodall.

“I think social media is a crazy-good way to talk to people, but you need that one-on-one with people,” said Schroeder.