Lessons Learned From a (Real) Fire Zone: Keep Your Friends Close, and Twitter Closer

September 11, 2009
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So, after raging more than 10 days, consuming over 160,000 acres, and destroying nearly 80 homes and dozens of other structures,the so-called Station Fire is 71% contained. Sad numbers, especially with the recent revelation that the fire was caused by arson. Scary numbers for me, my neighbors and friends who watched the local hills rage with fire day and night from our doorsteps.

 

The smoke in the skies blacked out the local mountains, which are, usually, clearly visible from the desk where I write this. Ash chunksFires the size of large flower petals rained from the sky. Breathing became impossible—my three-year-old son and I developed a persistent hack. Our eyes were bloodshot. My gym was crowded. Evacuation notices and the subsequent all-clear notices became a daily occurrence. Fire fighters, engines and brush rigs from all over the state crawled through the city streets, seeming to outnumber civilian traffic. It was surreal.

 

For those of you who missed the news—like, you’ve been in a coma since August— LA County has been fighting the largest forest fire in its history. I live in Altadena, which is a sweet little bedroom community at the base of the San Gabriel

So, after raging more than 10 days, consuming over 160,000 acres, and destroying nearly 80 homes and dozens of other structures,the so-called Station Fire is 71% contained. Sad numbers, especially with the recent revelation that the fire was caused by arson. Scary numbers for me, my neighbors and friends who watched the local hills rage with fire day and night from our doorsteps.

 

The smoke in the skies blacked out the local mountains, which are, usually, clearly visible from the desk where I write this. Ash chunksFires the size of large flower petals rained from the sky. Breathing became impossible—my three-year-old son and I developed a persistent hack. Our eyes were bloodshot. My gym was crowded. Evacuation notices and the subsequent all-clear notices became a daily occurrence. Fire fighters, engines and brush rigs from all over the state crawled through the city streets, seeming to outnumber civilian traffic. It was surreal.

 

For those of you who missed the news—like, you’ve been in a coma since August— LA County has been fighting the largest forest fire in its history. I live in Altadena, which is a sweet little bedroom community at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. Residents of my city, along with neighboring cities of La Canada Flintridge, La Crescenta, and Pasadena, lived in abject terror for many days, watching and waiting for this blaze to be brought under control. But, control was elusive.

 

We craved any information about the status of the fire… that, too, was elusive from traditional news sources. While CNN.com covered the fire, and NYTimes.com picked-it-up several days later when the situation was clearly dire, neither of my most frequently visited and highly trusted news-sources offered the detailed minute-to-minute updates I needed and wanted when flames were leaping from hills just across from my house.

 

Enter my new reliance on Twitter. I’ve been a fan and consistent user for the last 18 months (no Twitter-Quitter here). I’ve often blogged about the importance of Twitter in the social media landscape, and am a true believer. But, up until this fire, the most critical piece of news ever delivered to me via Twitter was that Lance Armstrong’s baby momma had delivered a son whose paternity I question (I’m a conspiracy theorist). I didn’t rely on it as a singular source to keep me connected to the world in a timely and serious way.

 

My respect shifted overnight. The LA Times set-up a Twitter handle, and what they couldn’t cover in print or online, they delivered through frequent, detailed Tweets. Dozens per day. I located other local residents who alerted me to ever-changing evacuation orders, air conditions, fire lines, and containment numbers. And, in the aftermath, I collected dozens of pictures of scarred trails showcasing the heart-breaking damage to the mountains where I run and ride daily. (As well as one important post informing about the $10k fine for folks violating the forest-closure rules. Few rides are worth that, certainly!)

 

I’ve worked in traditional news, broadcast and digital media technology for the sum total of my career. I’m as aware as anyone of the perils facing the traditional news business, and the rapid shift to online media as the dominant source for news. But, even I’d failed to make the mental shift to truly understand how a very broad, disconnected, social network would become critical to filling in the gap.

 

As I re-play the recent fire events, I need to send-out thanks to many people who made the events more tenable: the fire fighters who risked everything to protect my ‘hood; the local merchants who opened their doors to fire fighters for lunches and cold drinks; my friends with the sweet beach-side pad who offered us an escape from the ash and grime; and, now, my heightened appreciation for my new Twitter friends. I may have to Tweet about it!

 

Colleen Quinn

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