When the fires broke out across Sonoma County the night of Oct. 8, Jeff Bodean, like so many others, turned to social media to look for news updates.
He couldn’t get The Press Democrat website, which was experiencing unprecedented traffic, to load, but his Facebook newsfeed was filled with relevant posts. Friends on the ground posted about what they saw, what they heard, what was going on. It was sometime in the early morning hours of Oct. 9 that he decided the best way to track all of the fire-related posts would be to create a Facebook group and invite a few dozen friends in the area to join.
By 8 a.m., that group — Santa Rosa Firestorm Update — had 3,000 members. By that night, it had grown to 10,000.
“It just went gangbusters,” said Bodean, a television host who lives east of Santa Rosa. “It was the problem that everybody had. They weren’t getting the news fast enough. Everybody did a great job. You guys, the sheriff’s department, the big news networks, they all did a wonderful job. However, with a big moving fire you want to know minute-by-minute details. You don’t get that granularity with a big media outlet.”
At its peak, the group had 71,000 members, Bodean said. Since its creation, Santa Rosa Firestorm Update’s role has transitioned. It started out as a place for breaking news updates but is now more of a community forum, a central location where people can go to seek support, ask questions about insurance or reunite with lost animals. In that regard, it actually helped Bodean find his own dog, after he was forced to evacuate his home when the fires encroached.
Social media has increasingly become a way for private citizens affected by disasters to fill gaps they find in the response and to connect, said Jeannette Sutton, who researches the use of social media during disasters at the University of Kentucky.
“It’s allowed the public to have an opportunity to communicate directly about what’s happening as the event is unfolding,” she said.
“It allows the public to have a voice in a way that wasn’t previously possible, but it also allows responders to communicate directly to the people.”
That’s a tactic that the Federal Emergency Management Agency employed during the fires as well, monitoring keywords and following the conversation as it flowed online, said Brandi Richard, a FEMA public affairs office.
On Oct. 9, she said there were almost 200,000 social media posts about the fires, with the bulk of the conversation taking place on Twitter rather than Facebook.
There was a difference, too, in the types of posts made to the two sites. Twitter’s simple posting platform made it the natural place for news updates, whereas people on Facebook were doing what Bodean did: forming groups where they were able to share stories and gain support, Richard said.
FEMA workers would take note of what was being talked about in those spaces and use it to inform what they were putting out on their own social media pages and through the news.
“We’re concerned about the issues,” Richard said. “What are the main issues that people are talking about? … So they can be addressed in community meetings, but we also address them via social (media). So if we’re creating a post, then the post is going to be based off of what things we see that people care about.”