A white plume of smoke on the west side of U.S. Highway 550 about 10 miles north of Durango was the first indication residents had of a potentially dangerous wildfire.
That was about 10 a.m. June 1. Fast forward a few hours, and residents were receiving information by email, on social media, from news media, reverse 911 calls and by law enforcement going door-to-door informing residents in person or by leaflets of evacuation orders.
Within days, a call center was established to answer residents’ questions, and a CodeRed system alerted residents if they were on pre-evacuation status or being evacuated.
Federal firefighters took command of the 416 Fire and brought in a team of public information officers that pumped out information to local, state and national media outlets. Information officers also met directly with residents, holding community meetings and informational sessions at random locations throughout the county.
The demand for real-time information has changed the way people receive and consume information. Members of the Rocky Mountain Type I firefighting team said they strive to meet those demands.
“Back in the day, we did the morning press release and we did an evening press release, and that was really it,” said Brenda Bowen, lead public information officer for the Type 1 team. “We told our story two times a day unless the media showed up.”
Now, people expect constant updates, whether it is from social media or the news media.
“It’s not the 10 o’clock and the 5 o’clock news anymore, it’s all the time,” Bowen said.
There are 22 people on the public information group for the Type I team, and it has three branches: office, media and community. The office branch answers emails and phone calls from residents and creates the daily updates on its Facebook page dedicated to the fire. The media branch takes reporters and news cameras on tours and answers information for news coverage. The community branch posts information in various places throughout the county.
A fourth branch dedicated to social media can be created as needed, which is becoming more common as more people gather information that way, Bowen said.
The demand for constant information can sometimes make it difficult for information officers to help concerned residents.
“It’s hard, because sometimes it’s never enough,” Bowen said. “There’s times where we just don’t have information. It’s really hard to tell that story of ‘no news is good news, things are going as planned.’ It’s an unknown, scary situation for people, so it’s very hard. I think we could provide information every five minutes all day long and it’s not going to be enough for some people.”
While social media allows fire officials to reach a large number of people, many people are not social media literate.
“We’re totally tech-dumb,” said Sharon McCausland, who was evacuated Friday. “Our son gets online on his phone. But we’re not good at doing all that stuff. All this tech stuff that they have out there for us illiterate people, it’s kind of hard. But it’s our fault. We should have kept up with things. I think there’s plenty of information out there, we just need to be more able to access it personally.”
To combat this, a majority of the 22 public information officers working for the Type 1 team go around the county to post information in some of the most visible places. For example, a group of about 35 people gathered around 11:30 a.m. on multiple days last week outside Trimble TrueValue for an official to post new information and answer questions. Similar meetings popped up at 81301 Coffee, south City Market and the evacuation center.
“We have several information officers out right now, going to the community, making that face-to-face contact, because even with social media, that’s important,” Bowen said. “We’ve just broadened our reach.”
La Plata County spokeswoman Megan Graham has worked continuously since the start of the 416 Fire. Graham is responsible for relaying information to the public about evacuations, road closures and other updates during local emergencies.
Graham said she relies most on the county’s Facebook and Twitter pages to get that information out to residents. She estimates the county’s Twitter followers have increased by 75 percent, and the county’s Facebook page has gained thousands of likes and followers since the start of the fire.
“That’s probably our primary communication for this fire right now,” Graham said. “We make sure to push out (information) throughout the day on social media, and that’s enabled us to reach people pretty quickly and help people feel informed, know what’s going on.”
Another method of communication for those not tuned into social media is CodeRed. Multiple law enforcement officials are dialed in to use that service during natural disasters, which sends notifications to cellphones based on incidents that may affect an individual’s address.
Law enforcement has also gone door-to-door in areas under evacuation to ensure people receive important public safety information. Deputies have also used a loud speaker and leave notices on doors to communicate evacuation orders.
“The idea is to cast as wide a net as possible and make sure there’s no gaps in terms of people getting notified,” Graham said. “We want to create as much redundancy as possible so people know what’s going on.