Monday, June 30, 2008

Some wildfires begat others

Northern California is seeing largely some of the most complex wildfires to date. As I write, there are 1,420 fires burning across approximately 364,600 total acres of land. Response is substantial with more than 19,000 state and federal personnel responding. And for such a large area of land, surprisingly only 28 residences, 1 commercial building and 19 outbuildings have been destroyed. Devastating to those with interests vested in those structures, we should be fortunate to have such limited structural damage.

One of the key lessons responders learn from these types of crisis events is how quick and effectively you respond will determine how much of your message is truly communicated, or how much the media gets their information elsewhere – eliminating you as a source.

The federal disaster response system, known as the National Information Management System, is the code responders use to organize information gathering and dissemination. When several agencies and organizations combine to collaborate their response efforts, usually a Joint Information Center (JIC) is set up to help coordinate messages and information.

In my experience, JICs have been notoriously slow to approve messages and push it out for public consumption. Early on, this can make or break the JIC's relevancy in the response. If there are too many chefs in the kitchen, per se, too many lawyers codifying each sentence, too many agency managers needing to initial a press release, then the media characteristically gets impatient. Largely, the rise of bloggers as a media source is due to their ability to get information out fast.

The present California wildfires are no exception. So far they have pushed information out, but from now central outlet. As I peruse news coverage of the fires, it's evident that the media is looking elsewhere to make their news "breaking".

And, to nobody's discredit but the media, in today's mass information age, sometimes when news and updates get slow, many media outlets will make hay out of nothing. I recently found this article (from a less that reputable source I am sure) noting that the current wildfires are causing pollution. The first two paragraphs of the article read,

Sacramento, CA (AHN) - Pollution readings in California have jumped from 2 to 10 times above federal benchmarks for clean air, according to Dimitri Stanich, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board.

With a weather forecast of more thunderstorms and dry-lightning strikes, firefighters don't see any relief in sight for Californian's suffering from a rash of wildfires.

Interesting that the two paragraphs seem like they refer to the same subject, but really, the two are separate reports with the media drawing its conclusion. However, if wildfires in California are indeed to blame for such a large jump in pollution, someone needs to point out that the fires are well outside federal regulation...