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Social media and the Mount Charleston fire

As the Carpenter 1 Fire on Mount Charleston sent mushroom clouds into the sky during the day and glowed demonically at night, it also heated up on social media. #Carpenter1 had more than 100 posts a day on Twitter. But in the flood of posts, some key elements were missing.

“I just kind of saw a few posts, and it needs to be somewhere where it is organized,” said Las Vegas cocktail waitress Laura Wolfgang. So she created the Facebook site “Help the Mt. Charleston Firefighters.”

“There are a lot of people ready and willing to help but have no idea how to,” she said. “Everyone should be on there saying, I can help with this. You can even google ‘Help Mount Charleston Firefighters,’ and nothing comes up. This is a city of 2 million people!” The site attracted only 14 likes.

“In Las Vegas, you don’t see a lot of fires, and that is where the problem comes in because people don’t know where to go, and that is on our shoulders,” said Brandon Hampton, social media specialist with the Great Basin Incident Management Team, which handled media during the fire. He points out that is the clearinghouse for fire information. But social media is relatively new.

“As you can imagine, social media has not been a big part of the fire world,” Hampton said. “We realize now that it is one of the best ways to communicate with the public.”

One problem is that name of the Twitter account used to disseminate information about the incident, “T1GBIMTHARVEY,” is meaningless to the public. The acronym stands for the Type 1 Great Basin Incident Management Team, while HARVEY is the last name of the team commander. Which meant the team spent much of its time putting out social-media spot fires using an unknown name in an unfamiliar community.

“One of the biggest challenges is the dissemination of rumors,” Hampton said. “There are numerous examples. Today we saw that people were saying firefighters were evacuating the fire area because of heavy rains. That simply wasn’t true.”

Despite any perceived disconnect, he says, their Klout score has doubled since the fire to 47.

“In the old days, the government agency is the resource, and it is the job of government to bring people into the bubble of information,” said Todd Felts, assistant professor of strategic communications at UNR. “The paradigm shift is that the government entity is still providing information, but the chances of bringing them into your bubble is lower.”

That difficulty was also tangible online. The most affected group and possibly most comprehensive source of the latest local information was “secret” — a Mount Charleston Residents group that sprung to life during the fire with thousands of posts. Described as a secret group by Facebook, it is not searchable. Members declined a brief request to speak to CityLife about the importance of the site, preferring to remain private. But a review of the posts included information about meetings, reduced cost massages, hotel rooms and food, as well as play dates for kids, assistance for firefighters, escorts in and out of the area, pictures and the latest information on fire lines, what roads had been affected or buildings burned. Some government information also appeared there.

The disconnect Hampton points out between the general public, government and affected residents still exists, and that hasn’t escaped mountain residents such as Tom Padden. He wants to consolidate public and private and social media information, but has been frustrated, saying, “parallel communications were going on among people who prefer Facebook or Twitter, etc. Now that this situation has happened, I think there is impetus to do that.”