California wildfires were made for bloggers


October 28, 2007|By ANDREW RATNER

The blogosphere behaves most like a wildfire, especially when covering one.

In some ways, the California disaster was a tragedy made for blogs - a round-the-clock event that demanded real-time information for millions of people across hundreds of square miles. And in numerous ways, blogs came through.

Online bulletin boards such as and, the blog of the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness, formed after the 1993 Mailbu wildfires, updated evacuation news.

Users of Twitter - sort of a cross between blogging and instant messaging - offered rapid updates on the year-old free networking service to offer quick updates. KPBS, San Diego's National Public Radio affiliate, even piggybacked on the service to report news online after heavy traffic crashed its own Web site.

The American Red Cross' allowed people to register themselves as "safe and well" for friends and family members to see. Craigslist postings offered lodging for those displaced, including their pets.

The mainstream media, which a few years ago would have looked askance at relying on "citizen journalists" to supplement their reporting, actively solicited people to upload personal photos and videos of the fires to their sites, from ABC News to CNN to the New York Times. The news event was a landmark for user-generated content, occurring as it did in a very tech-oriented corner of the country.

Sometimes, the blogs would veer into related subjects, reflecting a medium that's opposite of a mass medium - more like the land of a million niches. A Google blog search turned up about 20,000 references to "California wildfires" the past week.

LAObserved, a popular online journal by Kevin Roderick, a former Los Angeles Times writer and editor, focused on the massive media efforts to cover the fires. It included a link to one of the week's most-watched videos, of veteran San Diego TV reporter Larry Himmel eerily narrating the immolation of his own home., a nonprofit online newspaper, focused on local issues, such as the debate over the San Diego superintendent's decision to keep most schools open Monday as the fire spread. And NASA offered updates of spectacular satellite imagery as a huge plume of smoke billowed farther out over the Pacific.

And occasionally, the blogs, like the fire itself, would "jump the highway," igniting new arguments - or re-igniting old ones - like an untamed force of human nature.

The Santa Ana winds are fierce, but partisan politics in America 2007 would give them a run for their money. If the Katrina deluge of 2005 revealed racist attitudes toward poor blacks in New Orleans, the wildfires dredged up the various hatreds of the rich - and presumed politically liberal - of Malibu and vicinity.

Various bloggers decried or delighted in a comment by radio talker Glenn Beck on his nationally syndicated show, "I think there is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today."

And a fire blog on the San Diego Union-Tribune's Web site, SignOnSanDiego, unleashed a torrent of reaction to a report of two teenagers arrested for looting in an evacuated neighborhood. The comments generally revolved around the theme of when the accused should be "shot on site" and why anyone who wouldn't agree should "love it or leave it."

Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.

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