How The Pandemic Is Making Information About Wildfires More Accessible Than Ever Before

This image of the Bobcat Fire advancing on Mount Wilson Sept. 6, 2020 was displayed live on the internet via the HPWren Fire Alert Camera mounted high on a solar telescope. (HPWren Fire Alert Cam at Mount Wilson)

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Is the Angeles National Forest tweeting #BobcatFire updates at you? Have you stumbled across a YouTube tutorial on fire behavior or attended a community evacuation briefing on Zoom?

You're the beneficiary of a pandemic-caused pivot of fire agencies to put more communications online.

For decades, fire managers relied on in-person news briefings and community meetings in high school gyms to inform the public about big wildland fires. It was efficient — for the fire agencies. But it was up to reporters and the public to show up and make sense of the fire talk to gauge the risk to homes.

In recent years, fire information officers had been experimenting with social media platforms to augment those in-person gatherings.

But now — no more baby steps. This year, the pandemic made it impractical and potentially unsafe to pack a few hundred neighbors — or a cluster of reporters — into a small space for an update from fire managers.

Take just the example of the Bobcat Fire burning in the San Gabriel Mountains between Monrovia and the Antelope Valley, which began Sept. 6. Here are a few of the new ways pandemic-savvy public information officers have changed how they communicate:

COMMUNITY MEETINGS

Before: A restless crowd would pack in to hear officials update the progress of the fire and to answer questions about which homes had been lost, and when people could return home.

With children running around and snacks on tables, it was a communal affair. But often it doubled as a showcase for local elected officials to spend a lot of time thanking other agencies, when the attendees really just wanted solid, actionable information about the fire and plans to repopulate their neighborhoods.

L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby speaks during a community meeting held on Zoom and YouTube to avoid public gatherings during the pandemic. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Now: Today, those meetings are happening on Zoom and YouTube, with all the good-to-terrible audio quality and "you're on mute" glitches that have become a staple of everyday pandemic life.

This kind of meeting can be good for the public, saving you a trip across town when air quality is poor and anxious family members might not all want to pile in the car.

It can also make the information accessible to many more people — the above video was viewed more than 7,000 times.

But the format, where audience questions tend to be screened, can shield officials from criticism about how the fire, or evacuations, or repopulating the area are being handled.

JARGON-FILLED MEETINGS:

Before: Fire officials speaking to news reporters and the public have tried to make themselves understood, and some are better than others, but they are firefighters first and communicators second.

So you might have heard fire terms like:

  • diurnal winds
  • structure defense
  • initial attack
  • crowning
  • advancing fire

When you really wanted to know about morning and evening wind shifts (diurnal winds), protecting homes from fire (structure defense), the first efforts to stop the fire (initial attack), trees burning from the top (crowning) and fires moving very quickly (advancing fire).

Now: CalFire and the U.S. Forest Service are making short videos for social media, which explain some of the jargon they use. The videos are collected on the Bobcat Fire's Youtube channel.

Like this one, above, an explanation of "strategic firing," a tactic used by firefighters when they set fires to consume fuel in the path of a fire to slow its progress. The tactic was used recently (to good effect) to defend the Mount Wilson Observatory grounds. The video is closed-captioned, so the hearing-impaired can also understand.

INFORMATION UPDATES

Before: Major updates about a fire have typically been presented to the media and public twice a day, generally about an hour or so after they were shared among fire managers.

These updates would generally include new figures for acreage and homes burned, damage to other structures, the number of people working on a fire and whether any firefighters were injured.

Now: Twitter has become a default method for fire departments to get information out. It's quick and gets the job done. It's also fair because everybody who follows the account gets the info at the same time.

These tweets often link to deeper information — like the fire's incident page (see Inciweb, below) a live briefing, or the most recent evacuation map and instructions. It makes it one of the most valuable tools for communicating.

But key information like acreage details and structural damage are still only updated twice a day. That's because it takes time and a team of experts to do the calculations and put together comprehensive reports.

RELIABLE FIRE MAPS

Before: Firefighters have had a variety of maps available to them to show the progress of a fire over each successive day, its perimeter (updated twice-daily) and the portions of the fire perimeter where the fire's advance had been contained. But generally most of them have not been readily available to the public.

Now: More types of maps are being posted online for the public to better understand where the fire is burning. The ESRI geographic information systems product called Storymaps is especially helpful because they combine information about where the fire has recently been flaring up, with evacuation maps, and many links to other information.

The Bobcat Fire link on the Inciweb website pulls together many maps, photos and other information about the fire. (Screenshot)

HARD-TO-MANAGE INFORMATION

Before: A website known as Inciweb has been around for a while, where different government agencies would post links to maps and information about large fires. It was a great idea, and generally helpful, but not particularly user-friendly.

Now: This may be the single best improvement for accessing fire information quickly. It's been updated in recent years to be even more complete — and easy to use.

These days, it includes more of everything. More agencies contribute information, and there are more links to cities, counties and emergency services.

The easiest way to find the fire you're interested in is to search the keywords "inciweb" and the name of the fire, in this case "Bobcat." This is what you get.

Once you're on the website, you can zero in on the incident icon on the map, click it and see basic information, like the number of acres burned. Then, on the lower half of the web page there's more information about the fire, tabs to access videos, photos, and links from many local agencies that are working the fire or affected by it.

OLD STYLE "TRAP LINES"

A fire information board in Big Bear Lake during the 2017 Holcomb Fire. (Courtesy INCIWEB.NWCG.GOV via KCVR)

Before: Not everybody has high-speed internet, especially if they are in rural areas and have been asked to evacuate their homes. So information officers, in the style of old-time game trappers, set out a series of bulletin boards at grocery stores, post offices and other gathering places.

And every day, like a trapper checking the traps, they travelled from one bulletin board to the next, stapling the most recent map and information sheets to the boards.

Information officers would often hang around for an hour or so to answer questions from residents.

Now: Trap lines are still a thing — but to avoid close contact with people, they post the latest maps and narratives along with links where residents can see video updates and other information.

LOOK — UP IN THE SKY

Flight trackers like the phone app Flightradar24 show the flight path of a firefighting airplane over the Bobcat Fire. (Screenshot from Flightradar24 phone app)

Before: For people who live in areas that are frequently endangered by fire, there can be comfort in being able to see where the firefighting aircraft are in real time or listening to firefighters on a scanner. Flight trackers have been around for a while, but not one you could put in your pocket.

Now: A growing number of tools are coming from the private sector, not official fire departments.

A flight tracking app like Flightradar24 lets you click on an aircraft avatar on your phone or laptop screen and see a photograph of the actual plane or helicopter. Another click reveals the flight path. Sometimes it's a water-dropping helicopter that can be tracked back-and-forth between a water source to the fire. Other times, it's the circular path of a fire spotting aircraft.

Online scanner apps, like Broadcastify.com, relay real-time communications between firefighters, fire managers and aircraft overhead. The broadcasts are of limited help to the general public in understanding what's going on at a fire line, though. That's because they are only a partial slice of the overall communications between fire officials, and they use a lot of those specialized terms that aren't always clear to a layperson.

In recent years, cameras mounted on various local peaks across Southern California in cooperation with Southern California Edison have been used to spot fires, and they are accessible to the public to view.

This time-lapse animation shows the Bobcat Fire coming perilously close to the Mount Wilson Observatory.