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Facebook, Twitter served as lifelines during fires

When the fires broke out across Sonoma County the night of Oct. 8, Jeff Bodean, like so many others, turned to social media to look for news updates.

He couldn’t get The Press Democrat website, which was experiencing unprecedented traffic, to load, but his Facebook newsfeed was filled with relevant posts. Friends on the ground posted about what they saw, what they heard, what was going on. It was sometime in the early morning hours of Oct. 9 that he decided the best way to track all of the fire-related posts would be to create a Facebook group and invite a few dozen friends in the area to join.

By 8 a.m., that group — Santa Rosa Firestorm Update — had 3,000 members. By that night, it had grown to 10,000.

“It just went gangbusters,” said Bodean, a television host who lives east of Santa Rosa. “It was the problem that everybody had. They weren’t getting the news fast enough. Everybody did a great job. You guys, the sheriff’s department, the big news networks, they all did a wonderful job. However, with a big moving fire you want to know minute-by-minute details. You don’t get that granularity with a big media outlet.”

At its peak, the group had 71,000 members, Bodean said. Since its creation, Santa Rosa Firestorm Update’s role has transitioned. It started out as a place for breaking news updates but is now more of a community forum, a central location where people can go to seek support, ask questions about insurance or reunite with lost animals. In that regard, it actually helped Bodean find his own dog, after he was forced to evacuate his home when the fires encroached.

Social media has increasingly become a way for private citizens affected by disasters to fill gaps they find in the response and to connect, said Jeannette Sutton, who researches the use of social media during disasters at the University of Kentucky.

“It’s allowed the public to have an opportunity to communicate directly about what’s happening as the event is unfolding,” she said.

“It allows the public to have a voice in a way that wasn’t previously possible, but it also allows responders to communicate directly to the people.”

That’s a tactic that the Federal Emergency Management Agency employed during the fires as well, monitoring keywords and following the conversation as it flowed online, said Brandi Richard, a FEMA public affairs office.

On Oct. 9, she said there were almost 200,000 social media posts about the fires, with the bulk of the conversation taking place on Twitter rather than Facebook.

There was a difference, too, in the types of posts made to the two sites. Twitter’s simple posting platform made it the natural place for news updates, whereas people on Facebook were doing what Bodean did: forming groups where they were able to share stories and gain support, Richard said.

FEMA workers would take note of what was being talked about in those spaces and use it to inform what they were putting out on their own social media pages and through the news.

“We’re concerned about the issues,” Richard said. “What are the main issues that people are talking about? … So they can be addressed in community meetings, but we also address them via social (media). So if we’re creating a post, then the post is going to be based off of what things we see that people care about.”

Also of note about the North Coast fires was the extent to which the California Office of Emergency Services was utilizing Nextdoor, a neighborhood social networking platform, during and after the fires, Richard said.

“It’s popular in other areas, but the extent to which the state agencies (used it), I think, is unique here,” she said.

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County officials were monitoring those online conversations, too.

“We were using social media to monitor information gaps and questions frequently asked by our community, so we can tailor our messages to be pertinent and helpful,” Jennifer Larocque, a spokeswoman for the county, said in an email.

Workers also were replying to messages and comments on the County of Sonoma Facebook page, she said.

On Oct. 14, the county’s Facebook page had its biggest day, with as many as 187,119 people reached through its posts.

The city of Santa Rosa reached 471,688 people with posts to its Facebook page, said Paul Lowenthal, assistant fire marshal.

The University of Kentucky’s Sutton, who calls herself a disaster sociologist, said the first known instance of social media being used in the wake of disaster was in 2004 after the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami.

Then, people started to use Flickr, a photo-sharing website, to collect images.

“Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and YouTube and Flickr and all of these things, they weren’t created for disaster response, but human beings are so creative they figure out ways to use them for whatever they need,” Sutton said.

And as disasters wane, those spaces, those conversations online transition just as Santa Rosa Firestorm Update has: as places to provide support for one another, she said.

Bodean has no plan to shut the group down.

“It’s a free-for-all and it feels like the Wild West sometimes, but most of the time people are posting good info and sharing good things,” he said.

“I think in the long run it’s going to be something good.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.