The fire next time

| October 26, 2007

As per BruceH’s morning post, things are cooling down, literally and figuratively. There are still a few small communities under threat, but we no longer face the prospect of having Chula Vista, La Mesa, and/or Del Mar go up in smoke.

This is the second major set of fires that San Diego has endured in four years. There were more deaths and more homes destroyed back in 2003, even though fewer square miles were burned, and there was a lot of finger-pointing and cross-blaming after the fact. My impression — at a distance — is that state, county, and city officials did a much better job of working together and getting people to safety this time.

BruceH’s efforts at mapping and visualizing the fires here on the blog clearly filled a need. Prior to Monday morning, our blog would average around 100 ‘hits’ (visits) per day, with occasional spikes up to 1,000-2,000 when someone with more web traffic would link to us. Since Monday morning, we’ve had nearly 60,000 hits — and were it not for the 10-hour outage on Tuesday due to our web hosting firm, that number would be closer to 100,000 (we were getting over 3,000 hits/hour — and climbing — when they shut down the web site around 11 am PDT).

Many of you posted comments or sent e-mails telling us that our site was the most useful that you found. I think that’s a credit to BruceH’s military, technical and intelligence background. As he mentioned to me in an e-mail, when the Witch Creek Fire started up, he was concerned about its threat to the horse farm (east of Escondido) where he and his wife board their horse, so he analyzed it as he would an operational threat, then took that information out to the horse farm. The result: that farm evacuated its horses a good 12 hours before the general evacuation from that area began and avoided the traffic jams. BruceH continued his work and posting his findings, with me chipping in from time to time with tidbits I could scrounge from the web; together, we’ve made just about 50 postings in the past 96 hours.

But there were lots of other great blogs and web sites covering the fire as well, hence the “SAN DIEGO FIRES” blogroll over in the right sidebar. The marvel about the web is that it is (a) self-organizing, (b) self-correcting and (c) largely altruistic. BruceH and I relied heavily on other web sites and resources in pulling together our postings, and I suspect others relied upon us.

While I know some of you were critical of government and the media for the information they put out (or failed to put out), in contrast to what he had here on our blog, I’m not sure they could have done what we did here. First, such organizations (both government and media) are unlikely to have someone with BruceH’s particular background working for them, and if they did, they probably wouldn’t have him posting to a web site — though that might be exactly the best use of his talents and skills.

Second, such organizations deal with formal and informal restrictions (including legal and regulatory) as to what they can publish, cross-reference or otherwise disseminate. We had no such restrictions — we (and specifically BruceH) could and did pull in information and data from every source we could find in order to find new ways of presenting what was actually happening.

Third, government agencies tend to be risk-adverse and have a long decision-making process. Machiavelli is my favorite source on this issue:

And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. (The Prince, Chapter 6)

By contrast, BruceH and I, by virtue of a modest investment, have a forum viewable by the entire world via any web browser hooked up to the ‘net. We can talk about whatever we choose without getting anyone else’s permission. The world, in turn, is free to ignore or pay attention to us. Largely, they have ignored us. <grin>

This is a long lead in to some questions that I’d like hear answers from you:

  • What could have been done better by state and local government in dealing with these fires?
  • What could have been done better by the (professional) media?
  • And what could we have done better — and by “we” I mean not just BruceH and myself, but all the independent bloggers who worked to cover these fires?

Please post comments here or, if you want to be more anonymous, drop me an e-mail.

In the meantime, please accept our heartfelt condolences to all you who have lost pets, cars, homes, jobs, or even loved ones in these fires. We’ve been through some disasters ourselves and know how disruptive and devastating they can be. But more than that, I think that San Diegans — both officials and citizens alike — can be proud of how well they handled and came through this catastrophe. While I may be a thousand miles away in Colorado, I have a very personal stake in how this all turned out: my mother (happy birthday, Mom!), three of my sisters (with spouses, nieces and nephews), and three of my adult children (with spouses and one grandchild), as well as any number of friends, all live in San Diego County.

Thanks again, and may God bless all of you. ..bruce..

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Category: Emergency Preparedness, Information Technology, Journalism, Main, SAN DIEGO EMERGENCIES, San Diego Fires

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

Comments (3)

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  1. pforstrn says:

    Bruce & Bruce-
    Thank you both for your efforts and expertise to keep us all informed about changing fire conditions in San Diego County. I particularly appreciated this mornings post which was both eloquent and informative. I agree that state, local & federal agencies could not have provided the detail within an almost real time environment that Bruce & Bruce were able to do since they are not under the constraints of PIOs and regulatory limitations. We live in an amazing time, don’t we? The many people who started blogs to keep each other informed was what I love about this area- a small-town attitude of community support regardless of whether we live in the country, as I do, or in San Diego itself. We’ve had such a wonderful response of volunteers and donations to help with evacuations, establishing safe zones to shelter, and helping folks get back on their feet to begin the healing & reconstruction. The capacity for good almost takes my breath away.

    In regards to your questions, BW:

    What could have been done better by state and local government in dealing with these fires?
    The State needs to work on better preparation to release the spotter planes to guide available air tankers, or reexamine their policy on how air support for fires is handled. It sounded like a bureaucratic pissing contest that delayed getting tankers in the air before the winds really picked up… just my opinion.

    What could have been done better by the (professional) media?
    Cover the San Diego area better. Malibu burns every year & those folks know it & can afford to rebuild without state or federal intervention. I also believe the media could spend more time focusing on positive aspects, like timely evacuations, well-prepared disaster plans, well-staffed evacuation centers and human interest stories and MUCH LESS on photo opportunities for politicians and trying to stir up trouble over response times and resoucrce allocation to keep themselves on the air… I get frustrated with all the negativity and finger pointing.

    And what could we have done better — and by “we” I mean not just BruceH and myself, but all the independent bloggers who worked to cover these fires?
    I forwarded links to this website (and others I discovered while trying to keep track of friends and family in the area) to friends and family across the country so they could monitor our progress without tying up phone lines and cell sites. The overwhelming concensus I have found, and heard, is that you folks (independent bloggers & techno-wizards) are the best source of information. Accurate, timely and compassionate. You have helped untold thousands as indicated by the hits on your web counter. Thank you for the service you provided our communities. You now live in my electronic bookmark so I can visit from time to time to see how you fare.

    My colleagues call me a “nerd girl” for my passion for technology- you all are my kind of folks. Keep it up!

    Patty Forst, RN

  2. Klug says:

    I don’t have much to say about the government, although I do appreciate any technical information they can put on their websites as close to real time as possible.

    The national news media is a complete mess and I don’t pay much attention to it. It is only capable of the broadest generalizations and goes for emotion over substance far too often. It’s not their fault. The local TV media is too fixated on raw pictures and not enough on synthesizing data. The local radio media is pretty effective through its call-in function, but it requires a pretty skillful host and producing team. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the KPBS radio staff was also responsible for the best (or most linked) interactive Google Map.

    Between the Interceptor blog for Katrina and the combination of the UT Fire Blog, catdirt and this blog, I firmly believe that blogs and interactive media are the best means of both disseminating and organizing information. I am not sure that wikis would help in this situation (as the amount of bad information would be quite high and subsequent deletions would be laborious), but the linking activity of blogs (and perhaps a central blog clearinghouse) are most useful.

    I found Bruce’s maps (and that of KPBS) to be the most valuable, because they were the most specific as to where the fire had been and where it was likely (due to wind direction) to go next. Although I recognize that Bruce H’s background makes it almost second nature to him, many people think the same way. Natural disasters are about time and place; detailed maps are very helpful in those situations. The vague blobs that the news media flashes on screen for a minute at a time cannot compare.

    Finally, I suggest (although the logistics would be nearly ridiculous) that in future situations, the government blast wi-fi signals as far and as wide as possible. Laptops with wifi are getting cheaper and cheaper — although radio is easier to obtain, the Internet is a much deeper data stream.

  3. rabbitgal says:

    First, I have to offer major kudos to you for implementing this blog in the early stages of these fires. I’m a native Californian (Oceanside) but no longer live there (too many people for me!) However, all of my family and many friends still live there. When I first heard of the fires on the radio and then through a phone call from my sister, I immediately logged on looking for information. The two sites I referred to the most throughout these last 6 days were yours and SignOn San Diego’s blog. For those of us not living in the area of SoCal, the web was really our best source. As mentioned in the comment above, even CNN focused more on emotion and drama over what was actually happening.

    So, to the questions. What could have been done better by state and local government in dealing with these fires? Having still been in San Diego County when the Cedar fire went through, I think the state and county governments really did a much improved job. I know folks from that fire who called 911 when they saw fire on a ridge from their house and were told there was no threat and it was under control. Thank God they had the sense to evacuate anyway. Their home was destroyed. So, the reverse 911 and proactive evacuation of even minimally threatened areas seemed to be a good decision, although I know some have complained about that. It seems there will always be something to complain about and something to point fingers at. Overall, it’s greatly improved from my perspective.

    Certainly, the San Diego County Emergency Center is going to have to realize that people are going to use their web site as a critical source of information. Having the site continually time out and the maps failing to load deserves an F in functionality. I gave up even trying to get information from there.

    Camp Pendleton’s web site also did not function well or provide continuous updates when the fires started there. Because of the nature of the families who live about the installation, it should be realized that people from all of the country are going to go to that web site for information. We cannot get information from local news. If the authorities (county) really want people to stay off their cell phones, they have to provide more quantitative information in a timely manner.

    What could have been done better by the (professional) media? As stated before, I think most of us would prefer actual facts over the drama/emotion. And really, visiting dignitaries take more resources than what they add to the equation. The professional media could stand a lesson from your blog with the maps, data and such. As in any given event, they can call in an “expert” to provide data/maps.

    And what could we have done better — and by “we” I mean not just BruceH and myself, but all the independent bloggers who worked to cover these fires? Never having read blogs before, I don’t have any suggestions about this. Hmm, perhaps a network of contacts throughout the affected area to provide additional information? And perhaps your very own server so you don’t have to deal with idiots 🙂

    Rabbitgal