WALDO CANYON FIRE: Social media dominates flow of fire info

By: MATT STEINER
July 6, 2012
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photo - A plume of smoke rises over the hills to the north of Cascade on June 23, 2012, just after the Waldo Canyon fire began west of Colorado Springs. Photo by MATT STEINER, THE GAZETTE
A plume of smoke rises over the hills to the north of Cascade on June 23, 2012, just after the Waldo Canyon fire began west of Colorado Springs. Photo by MATT STEINER, THE GAZETTE 

Media crews and residents of the Pikes Peak region scrambled for the past two weeks, trying to find that next nugget of information about the Waldo Canyon fire.

But it was social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and even YouTube that dominated the flow of up-to-date information during the blaze that scorched the hills west of Colorado Springs, destroying 346 homes and killing two people.

The day the fire sent its first smoke plume skyward, it had a Twitter name: #WaldoCanyonFire.

“I got about 85 percent of my info from Twitter, then passed it on to FB (Facebook) where friends got 85 percent of theirs from me, LOL.,” Kailah Brost said in a Twitter post when asked how important social media was for her during the blaze. She wasn’t alone following that pattern as numerous Gazette Facebook friends and Twitter followers shared similar comments this week.

Rapper MC Hammer got into the Waldo Canyon act, retweeting a post by a Colorado Springs resident that contained the hashtag #WaldoCanyonFire. Famous for his 1990 hit “Can’t Touch This,” he solicited prayers for his “Sisters and Brothers in Colorado” in another Tweet.

Hammer’s retweet reached 2.8 million people, according to Mary Scott, a senior communications specialist with the city of Colorado Springs.

Scott was one of the main organizers of government information and official social media during the fire. She ran the Waldo Canyon fire joint information center that gathered information from Colorado Springs and El Paso County officials and made sure communication was flowing.

She said Twitter was the route that officials chose for immediate information, and reining in any errors flowing across social media streams.

“As soon as we got the stats from incident command, we were putting them out,” she said.

A report by hashtracking.com on Thursday said the #WaldoCanyonFire hashtag reached 54.4 million people and drew 119,000 tweets in 15 days.

As for the misinformation, “We could instantly respond and say, ‘No, that’s not correct,'” Scott said.

Getting information from thousands of strangers means some of it will be overblown, incorrect and even purposefully false.

“We do see a lot,” said Steve Segin, a public information officer with the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, an interagency fire center serving Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota. “If you get one piece of wrong information, and everybody starts tweeting about it, it takes a lot of effort to get the right information out.”

Tweets by Scott’s and Segin’s teams and those coming from reporters at meetings, press briefings and around the region were constantly retweeted by ravenous followers.

While the government focused on Twitter, tens of thousands of people looked to the world’s most popular social media network for their information.

“This was about the only way I could keep up with what was going on,” said Lisa Armour in a Facebook comment. Armour said she lives in North Carolina and the social network was her conduit to her son, an Air Force Academy cadet, and friends in the Pikes Peak region.

While authorities set up a fire website, they also turned to Flickr to post maps and photos of the fire, Segin said. On YouTube, people shared Waldo Canyon fire stories and put a face on the tragic losses of homes and life.

“Sometimes there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction,” Segin said.

Facebook and YouTube have long been routes for people to interact and share information, but the power of Twitter burst into the spotlight for many following the Waldo Canyon blaze.

Scott said Twitter is a much easier tool to use for speed of information. It doesn’t require the conversational element of Facebook and doesn’t have to be monitored 24/7 to remain efficient, she said.

And Twitter users seem to prefer monitoring hashtags over television news.

“I often muted the TV, listened to the scanner & read Twitter & RTd (retweeted),” posted @IrishMason, a Twitter user from Colorado Springs who has tweeted more than 14,000 times.

Follow Matt Steiner on Twitter @gazsteiner or on Facebook at Matt Steiner, Gazette reporter.

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