Local

Frustrated with official sources, Ojai residents crowdsource Thomas Fire updates

Peter Owen has living out of an RV since fleeing the Thomas Fire. He learned his house was still standing as of Thursday from his daughter's friends in the Ojai Valley. But he also says one the best sources of news about Ojai have been Facebook groups.
Peter Owen has living out of an RV since fleeing the Thomas Fire. He learned his house was still standing as of Thursday from his daughter's friends in the Ojai Valley. But he also says one the best sources of news about Ojai have been Facebook groups.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

Some Ojai residents, ex-residents and evacuees say they've been frustrated with what they feel are infrequent or incomplete updates about the spreading Thomas Fire — both from local news outlets and from fire officials.

In response, Ojai residents — and others with Ojai ties — have found ways to crowdsource information about fire damage on their own.

On several Facebook groups, evacuees are asking about information from within the city, and residents are racing around town to post photos and updates.

Others are editing a massive, open Google Document with fire-relevant calls they hear on Ventura County's law enforcement scanner, posting the sort of hyperlocal, address-specific reports they're not likely to read, see or hear on the local news.

"I don’t want to be a news reporter by any means," said Mitch Mashburn, one of the administrators of the Facebook group "The Other Ojai" — and yet reporting of a kind is exactly what he's doing: driving around, checking individual homes or neighborhoods and posting photos and updates. "It's a group effort," he added.

Another open Facebook group — created only on Wednesday — has more than 9,000 members and is growing almost by the minute as information-hungry Ojai residents and evacuees scramble for information.

"I am amazed at how many wonderful people have posted on the page and have really worked hard to keep us all updated," said group moderator Leslie Ferraro, who said via Facebook Message that she's been living in Ojai for the last 12 years.

The information-gathering process has been fraught. Tiare Rath, an Ojai native who now lives in San Diego, began posting information she gleaned from the scanner, in part, because she found some of the Facebook posts weren't always accurate — and she felt a semi-curated list of real-time, on-the-ground reports would offer a better picture.

"Between Facebook and the lack of information [from officials or local newsrooms] and trying to find anything, it’s mass chaos," said Rath, who is trained as a journalist and works as a freelance editor.

"I just wanted to organize something to have — even if it’s not comprehensive — some sort of centralized resource for people of the Ojai Valley to go to," Rath said, "especially because many people are traumatized, many people are evacuated, many people are running out of money and are very scared."

"I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone from Ojai," said Kevin Blaine, another Ojai expat who's collaborating with Rath on the scanner document. He currently lives in Huntington Beach.

"I’m seeing my house where I grew up covered by this giant red spot," he said, "by the heat map and hearing it’s evacuated. The stress that’s pervasive all week is awful."

Scanner traffic itself is not always accurate, meaning the massive, open-source Thomas Fire document has its limitations. But Rath said the document is attributed to a source.

"And if it's a secondhand report, it's written at the top of the document that it's unverified," said Rath. "But one issue with the scanner is that sometimes there's no follow-up."

Charles Esseling, a public information officer for the Cal Fire response, said official information is put out as quickly as possible. He said officials vet it to ensure it's accurate.

"This is a very complex fire. We have multiple HQ’s working together — and we’re all working together extremely well, which is a nice beautiful thing. We’re trying to get out the information as soon and as accurately as possible."

On one of the Facebook pages, commenters complained about the information vacuum — and one source of their frustration has been with local news organizations. Rath said it's obvious that with multiple wildfires burning, newsrooms are stretched thin — and it's showing in the coverage.

“There are a lot of newscasting people," Mashburn said, "putting out the wrong information.”