~ Erin Niemi
As California fire season has already been off to a record-setting start, fire departments all across California have been active online in order to alert the public. As of Oct. 5, in this 2020 wildfire season, there have been over 8,000 wildfires and a growing total of over 4 million acres burned, along with 31 lives lost and 8,687 structures that have been destroyed (according to CalFire). California is currently fighting five of the ten largest wildfires burned in the last decade, and although fire season has already been devastating, it is thought that there are more record-setting wildfires in store.
So, what has been causing the rise of longer and more sustained fire seasons? While some of the wildfires have been due to human error, such as the El Dorado wildfire that was caused by a pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal party, the vast majority have been a result of climate change. Because temperatures have been rising and the number of droughts has increased, the vegetation in California has become more “fire-friendly” and the areas affected by drought typically experience a long and destructive fire season. In addition to drought, dry lightning storms also fueled by climate change have impacted fire seasons in Northern California, and high-pressure systems that occur with areas already affected by drought and heat have created the perfect opportunity for thunderstorms with little rain.
To curb these wildfires and attempt to control their burn path, it is thought that fire prevention techniques such as “prescribed burning” would be able to help, but it is a quick fix in lieu of a long term effort towards systemic adjustments to slow climate change.
How are Fire Departments Communicating with the Public about Fire Threats?
In the meantime, fire departments around California have been utilizing their public platforms to help keep its residents safe and informed of threats in the area. The Ventura County Fire Department (the VCFD), has been alerting the public through their website, the public information office, and their social media accounts. The VCFD manages three different Twitter accounts, and information from their Twitter can also be found on Instagram and Facebook @venturacountyfire. Their website also includes recent press releases and active calls on their website, providing a resource for the public to view their most recent announcements. In addition to the fire department’s website, the VCFD also advertises vcemergency.com, which serves as a resource for the public that shares information about local cooling centers, active incidents, and COVID-19. The public can also sign up for VCFD emergency alerts by texting “VCALERT” to 313131 and receive real-time updates on incidents from their cell phones.
How Does the Digital Boom Impact Crisis Management?
Social media and digital platforms continue to become an easy way for the public to stay informed on a variety of issues, including those of crisis management. By providing a user-friendly way to interact with current statistics and breaking information, the public can continue to stay informed in real-time and in a more accessible fashion than ever before. This digitalized society has the advantage of empowering the public to be more prepared and informed when large fires break out by reaching more people faster.
This level of engagement also provides a larger amount of organizational transparency and provides an instantaneous way for the public to respond, ask questions, and have conversations with other people regarding incidents. The use of social media can also alert people of large incidents happening elsewhere. For example, the VCFD continually shared updates about the Bobcat Fire and the El Dorado Fire by sharing tweets and videos from the LAFD and the San Bernardino County FD.
What to Expect In the Coming Months?
While fire season continues to rage on, it is a fair prediction that crisis organizations will continue to develop their public presence on their digital platforms to keep the public aware of threats and incidents. And should an emergency occur, it is fair to say the first place to receive updates and information will come in the form of a text message or tweet. It is also fair to hypothesize that with the growth of incidents there will be an increased need for resources and time to continue to update the public, be it in manpower, firefighters taking on additional roles in media management, or an increase of press conferences to the public. So in the meantime, turn your alerts on, stay safe, and thank a firefighter today!