SAN MARCOS — It was a needed discussion on lessons learned for those involved in the May wildfires that popped up over three consecutive days, in three different areas in the county.
The San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists held a panel discussion on the campus of Cal State San Marcos on Wednesday to discuss perspectives, expectations and realities for safety officials, journalists and residents during emergencies such as the recent wildfires.
“The idea is we’re going to get the media, the public and safety officials talking to one another, reflecting on what worked and what didn’t in the May 2014 wildfires, and discussing how to improve things for everyone in the next one,” Matt Hall, president of the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and public engagement editor for U-T San Diego, said.
No two fires are the same. The May fires burned 26,000 acres, destroyed 46 homes and 19 structures, and spurred 121,000 evacuation notices.
A lot was learned in the 2003 wildfires that helped this time around.
“I think the county is safer than ever,” Dean Elwood KFMB/Channel 8 news director, said.
There have been major safety advancements with the implementation of drop boundary agreements between cities, and air and ground coordination between fire, police, sheriffs and military.
Nick Schuler, Cal Fire battalion chief and incident commander for the May fires, said he is able to request military assistance with a phone call.
“San Diego is the only county in the nation with immediate response,” Schuler said. “I can make a call to the military to say we may need to activate you tomorrow and find out what they have available.”
While collaboration has improved county safety, there are gaps between public expectations and reality.
“The challenge is people see military helicopters sitting in a row and think every one of them should be in flight,” Schuler said.
Marine Col. Will Hooper, deputy operations officer, said the military is ready to help fight fires in the capacity it can.
“It is not out primary mission,” Hooper said. “The Navy has a core mission of firefighting we do not. We have the capacity to provide this when we’re able.”
The Corps has 33 buckets to airdrop water, and all of them are located in California.
Journalists also discussed challenges of accessing the scene.
“We’re really trying to serve the public and save lives,” Elwood said. “To each person their property is really important to them. We want to give some people a little sense of relief.”
Discussion brought to light that the limited media access to the fire in Carlsbad was due to safety concerns. Winds were pushing along embers that had 100 percent likelihood of starting another fire.
“The fire was burning fast and furious,” Mike Lopez, Carlsbad division chief/fire marshal, said. “It was the perfect storm. We were taxed on resources. Then we get hit with the call for Poinsettia. We sealed off roads. The fire was in the direct center of the city.”
Talks also shared that access to updated fire maps are improving.
Simpler, easily accessible maps are being developed for the public.
High-resolution maps, in several file formats, are accessible to media.
Brett Van Wey, San Marcos fire chief, added access to the most accurate maps is sometimes a matter of media contacting the city that is handling the fire, rather than the county.
The mutual need for public safety and media to work together was shared.
Schuler said Cal Fire relies on media to get out emergency information.
“It’s important for us to work as a team,” Schuler said. “If we don’t provide it for them, they’ll find someone else who will provide their perspective.”
Craig Carter, Escondido police chief, reiterated the need to work together especially in announcing mandatory evacuations and shelter locations.
“We can’t do our job without media,” Carter said.
Journalists discussed getting out timely and accurate information to keep the public updated.
Carter warned journalists against reporting unverified information heard over police or fire emergency radio.
Social media was also discussed as a useful source to quickly disperse and gather information. It was cautioned that information must be vetted.
“There’s so much more information available, so much more quickly it’s
unwieldy at times,” Elwood said.
Discussion concluded with kudos to safety officials for keeping the public safe, and a vow by journalists to keep residents informed.