Getting the word out

Twice-daily CalFire briefings were critical to getting accurate information to residents, but some technical glitches plagued the state fire agency. 

At 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 19, as wildfires were spreading toward South Coast neighborhoods and rumors swirled about incoming evacuation orders, Puente de la Costa Sur staff packed up the Pescadero High School evacuation center and headed north to establish a new home base at Half Moon Bay High School. But news of the changed location didn’t run through official channels until hours later, when CalFire tweeted an incident report, then corrected that with the correct shelter location.

It wasn’t the only information mishap last week. As the CZU August Lightning Complex fire threatened the South Coast, getting the facts wasn’t always easy.

The mobile interface for the Zonehaven website, to which San Mateo County’s emergency alerts were pointing residents for critical evacuation information, broke down under overwhelming traffic. Then, for a few hours on Aug. 19, the CalFire website went down, too. No one knew which map to turn to get the most accurate view of the spread of the fire. And for residents with homes inside the fire’s range, knowing if the flames had reached their property was nearly impossible for a time.

During the crisis, social media was at the center of communications, with CalFire and San Mateo County using Twitter to publish press releases and give updates when information became available. But even those communications failed at times. CalFire’s twice-daily press briefings were sometimes barely audible through livestreams and othertimes not carried at all. In at least one instance, officials had to issue corrections to evacuation orders that mislabeled neighborhoods.

CalFire Public Information Officer Cecile Juliette said the same resource shortages plaguing the firefight affected her office. Communications teams were spread thin across the fires burning throughout the state. And at the start of the fires, as evacuation warnings and orders were issued by the hour, CalFire communications staff was working around the clock just to stay on top of each change.

“It was a race to get out information,” Juliette said.

Various Facebook groups and Nextdoor posts cropped as the fire spread, with neighbors sharing any snippet of news they could get — stills taken from camera feeds outside South Coast homes, texts from neighbors and friends still inside evacuation zones, and reports pulled from press briefings or conversations with first responders.

On the South Coast, many residents live without consistent access to the internet or cell service. On the night of Aug. 18, when Whitehouse Canyon residents were ordered to evacuate just before midnight, some only got the message by chance, barely getting out in time because of neighbors’ calls. Others didn’t wait for an evacuation order, relying instead on their network of neighbors to tell each other when it was time. On Aug. 19, many camped along Highway 1, watching the flames move through their canyon.

“We’re waiting for answers,” one resident said.

For others, the problem was too much information and not enough confirmation.

Lisa Mateja and her kids Sophie and Henry were at Pescadero High School after evacuating their Butano Canyon home on Aug. 19. They said at the start of the crisis, the neighborhood rumor mill was overwhelming as they waited for news on the status of their neighborhood. Instead, they were paying attention to news from local agencies like San Mateo County.

“I think the information is fast-changing,” Mateja said. “We’ve been trying to focus on sources that are more reliable.”

It’s this problem that led La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District Superintendent Amy Wooliever to leave the communicating about resources and the fire itself to other groups, like Puente, so as not to spread any misinformation or create any confusion.

“There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen,” Wooliever said.

Puente Executive Director Rita Mancera said communication was by far the biggest challenge her group has faced during their wildfire response. Mancera said that while technology can help accelerate a response and information dissemination, it can also create confusion and even panic.

“Sometimes, our work is to calm rumors down,” Mancera said

The Review had its own struggle with misinformation. For a time, the newspaper mistakenly reported Pescadero and La Honda had been ordered to evacuate when it was still under evacuation warning. At La Honda’s Station 37, Community Emergency Response Team volunteers worked to respond to an inundation of questions from residents calling, emailing and stopping by to confirm reports from the newspaper and elsewhere.

As the days wore on, county and CalFire communications improved dramatically, with American Sign Language interpretation at press briefings and Spanish-language videos and news releases now hitting social media. The Zonehaven website pivoted to a new version that could handle more traffic, and Juliette said as her team began to fall into a rhythm, they were better able to respond to questions and concerns.

Although some communication did break down over the course of the firefight, Zonehaven CEO Charlie Crocker said coordination among counties and agencies has improved tremendously. Although the Zonehaven map experienced overload issues when too many residents tried to access its beta mobile site, the company’s main role — to create evacuation zones with borders and names that are consistent across county jurisdictions — succeeded. And Crocker said his team is working to make operations even more smooth in the future by closing time gaps and creating a singular dataset to reduce confusion. Long-term, Crocker said, they’re working on rolling out a “know your zone” campaign to aid evacuations even further.

“We’re only getting better at this,” Crocker said.

Juliette agreed that as fires become more common in the area, residents, fire response teams and local agencies will all become more unified in their messaging.

“This is the first big fire in our unit, probably ever, and this is something we may face more in the coming years,” Juliette said. “We all need to get our game pretty buttoned up.”

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