Saturday, June 9, 2012, will certainly be a day most of Lincoln County will remember for a long time. The usual stunning view of Sierra Blanca was veiled in smoke, land and cell phone lines were out of order as well as DSL service, and to add to the confusion and stress, roads in and out of Ruidoso were closed. As the Little Bear Fire grew, so did the home evacuations and uneasiness of area residents. As many will attest, there is nothing worse than being unable to help in times of need, and it’s this restlessness in a communication blackout that can easily be the impetus for large scale panic.
When Facebook made its debut on the internet ten years ago, many laughed it off as a fad and a waste of time, but what transpired on Facebook within an hour as a result of the Little Bear Fire has validated that Facebook is much more than just social gab.
Because Facebook is based on “friend requests”, it’s logical that unless you’re a hermit, you have a geographically local nucleus of friends in addition to some scattered over the nation and globe, and it’s precisely this characteristic that made this network so valuable in the case of a forest fire run amuck. To the credit of the utility and communication services, DSL and phones were restored by late Saturday. Within an hour, a Facebook group was set up called “Little Bear Fire” and people could simply add friends to the group. By Saturday evening the membership had grown to almost two thousand. Discussions and news about the fire were posted to the group and included reminders to pass along only verified information, so rumors were quickly dispelled. Regular posts flowed in from the Chamber of Commerce, Forest Service, Parks and Recreation and local news agencies. This group became a virtual public bulletin board of accurate information about the fire and its toll on the community. As word spread that people had lost their homes, so did the good will. People in the Facebook group began asking about helping and a second group was started, “Little Bear Fire –people in need”. Offers of help came from nearby communities such as Alamogordo and Roswell, and as far as Lubbock and Albuquerque. It was an amazing mobilization of services and help for a community in need that happened almost overnight.
The only “glitch” in all of this was that the people who needed this information the most, the evacuees, did not have access to a computer and had to rely on literal “word of mouth” or community meetings for evacuation updates. Anyone who has ever survived a crisis will emphasize that immediate and flexible access to valuable and timely information is absolutely necessary in order to quickly ease the stress of a community on edge.
Times have changed but rural communities do not need to be on the tail-end of technological innovation, as this community’s involvement in Facebook has proven. Community leaders need to be sure to include Facebook as well as the other social networks in their emergency plans. This is even more important in areas like Lincoln County where residents have to live with the constant risk of forest fires. To ignore Facebook as a tool for communication and damage control would be irresponsible. There are enough techies in this town to help local businesses and libraries set up big screen TV’s so that a regular newsfeed from a relevant Facebook group could be broadcast publicly in case of any emergency or crisis. How comforting would it have been for the evacuess of the Little Bear Fire to have been able to go somewhere pleasant , read valuable updates and realize how many people were coming together on their behalf, especially if they didn’t have time to take their laptop with them when they had to leave their homes and possessions?
Facebook has come of age. Like so many other things in life, it can be a valuable tool, but only if you know how to use it, and value it enough to learn about it so that you can find your way around it in case of emergency. It’s analogous to the emergency exit in a plane. You can ignore it all you want, but if you need it, you better know where it is and how to open that door. There is no excuse or honor in being technologically illiterate today. Quick communication can save your life or somebody else’s. It can certainly save your sanity and remind you that you are truly not alone.
Helene Kobelnyk is a lifestyle and fine art photographer and can be contacted on www.helenekobelnyk.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
(Published in Ruidoso News Vamanos June 22,2012)