Sometimes it’s OK to yell ‘Fire!’

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jun 17, 2013 in Rat Answers | Subscribe

At first glance it’s like any other community Facebook page.

There’s jewelry, a used car or two, pet rats, all for sale of course, kids pictures, and work-at-home job offers, and the typical questions you ask your friends and neighbors: “Does anyone know if there are any day camps for kids in Calaveras County?”

And then there’s other stuff, the kind of news you read about in the Enterprise.

There is the high anxiety of moms whose children emerge from swimming in New Hogan Reservoir with a strange rash erupting on their bodies, protests about the local water district’s proposed steep rate increases and a flash mob response to the threat of a wildfire that puts the whole community in peril.

All of a sudden, everyone’s a news reporter. They’re filing fragments of the big story in real time, at least as they see the story, and posting photos of the drama almost as fast as it unfolds.

“I created it a little over a month ago just after the Fowler incident,” said Facebook page creator Erin Mossa, describing the tragic stabbing death of 8-year-old Leila Fowler and the fears that paralyzed the Valley Springs community during the two-week investigation that followed, culminating in the arrest of Leila’s 12-year-old brother.

What was happening, Mossa said, was the Facebook group that most of the Calaveras community used at the time was irritating some of its members by deleting their posts.

The creator of that group, she said, “wanted it to stay more as a buy and sell group, and so it was deleting people and deleting their posts, and people were getting very upset about it. … When I saw that happening I thought this would be a good time to start the Valley Springs Bulletin Board. I made a promise to the group that their posts won’t be deleted and people won’t be deleted; that it’s not going to be monitored as far as me making a decision on what’s appropriate and what’s not. It would be a community forum where people could discuss or share news, and if they want to sell stuff that’s fine, too, obviously, but kind of like the old-time bulletin boards outside of your grocery store.”

At the end of the lunch hour last Monday, June 3, there was a new, frightening post on the page: “Heard a loud bang then what I think is a house …,” began Ashley M-Ingrham’s message. Successive posts showed pictures of smoke billowing among trees nearby and Cal Fire aircraft in full attack mode dumping retardant and water at a target hidden behind a tree-filled vista.

Over the course of the next two hours, posts continued to pile up on the Valley Springs Bulletin Board, not all of them accurate. Someone thought a plane had crashed; someone else said that was untrue. Someone said nearby houses were being evacuated. That was true. But by 3 p.m. the fire was encircled, the drama pretty much over, people returned, two homes and an outbuilding were destroyed, an extended family was left homeless.

Mossa is a 39-year-old mother of two, a para-educator at Jenny Lind School, and at the forefront of the growing communications magic spawned by Facebook and Twitter. It’s a remarkable thing that traditional journalists like me are still digesting. It’s flawed, but it’s good in the sense that it gives us many more eyes on the community.

Mossa’s Valley Springs Bulletin Board had 1,337 followers as of last Tuesday, 25 of them joining the group in just 24 hours.

“I think what I have learned is people like to know what is going on,” she said, “and it’s nice, especially with everyone’s Smart phones now, that if they see something happening they can post it and people can put their input in or clarify things if they know more information. I think people just like to know what’s going on in the community.”

Will bulletin boards replace traditional news, ring the death knell for newspapers?

“No,” she said. “There’s always going to be people buying newspapers. I’m on the Bulletin Board constantly, but I like to have something in front of me printed and I like to read it. That’s like a tradition I don’t see dying out ever because the bulletin boards are short little blurbs. To me when you’re reading a newspaper it’s in print and it’s a little more authoritative. On the Bulletin Board people are just throwing out their ideas and some of them may not be true and later we find out differently. You can find out a lot of information quick through word-of-mouth, I think we all know that. And this just sort of speeds up the word-of-mouth.”

Still, sometimes word-of-mouth can be pretty useful, particularly when a wildfire is on your doorstep.


Update: As a follow-up to last week’s column about the return of the big green frog monument to Angels Camp, I failed to mention the influential role of a Facebook group in the effort. Members of “You know you grew up in Calaveras County when …” first promoted the idea, and Dan Sturdivant, who created the Facebook page, won permission for the move from the property owner where the frog sat. Also, Nadine Johnson, who was mentioned in the column, called me afterward to correct the chronology of events as I described them. She said the core of the frog was indeed carved from a log from the Airola Ranch, but not by Ray Selesia, who in the 1950s built the Foster’s Freeze where it would later be displayed. Nadine and her husband C.T. bought the diner in Angels Camp in 1972 and had the log fashioned into frog-shape by a man named David Lavada, who used a chainsaw to carve it.

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