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As wildfires worsen, Californians harness tech for help

by Ellen Wulfhorst | @EJWulfhorst | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 11 November 2019 17:52 GMT

An inmate hand crew mops up hot spots along Wright creek during the Kincade fire in Healdsburg, California, U.S. October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

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To better protect themselves from wildfires worsened by climate change, communities are pulling together to share information

By Ellen Wulfhorst

HEALDSBURG, Calif., Nov 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When a wildfire threatened Margie Hanselman's home in the northern California hills two years ago, the fire department dispatcher told her all the crews were already busy battling another blaze.

"That's when I knew we were really on our own," she said. "I knew I had to do something differently for the next big emergency."

So Hanselman, her neighbors and fire officials got together and turned to mobile phone apps, social media and communications technology to better share news, emergency updates and preparation advice on threats in their fire-prone community in Sonoma County wine country.

This month's wind-driven Kincade fire, which burned nearly 80,000 acres (32,400 hectares) and destroyed more than 370 structures, stopped just short of Hanselman's driveway.

This time, no one died, unlike two years ago, when the nearby Pocket fire and other windy wildfires north of the San Francisco Bay area killed 43 people.

Joining forces to address the growing threat of living in a dry, rural forest area has made the community less stressed and anxious, said Priscilla Abercrombie, a nurse practitioner with a home on the region's Fitch Mountain.

Hanselman and Abercrombie helped put together a local COPE team - Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies - which links residents and authorities to share advice on everything from how to pack evacuation bags to how to find family during a fire.

"I feel more empowered. I feel more in control," said Abercrombie. "I feel better about myself, and I feel better about my community."

Typically, the COPE network might collect and share information such as where doctors live, where a resident might be house-bound or where swimming pools are located that could be used in fighting a fire, organizers said.

It was modeled after an original COPE team started a few miles south in Santa Rosa after the deadly 2017 Tubbs fire that killed more than 20 people, they said.

A view of the Soda Rock Winery, destroyed in Sonoma County’s Kincade fire that started on Oct. 23, 2019, photo taken Nov. 6, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Ellen Wulfhorst


Healdsburg Fire Marshal Linda Collister said she has integrated the local COPE network with GroupMe, a mobile messaging app, to help share information that in the recent Kincade fire helped people evacuate early and smoothly.

This time, no one died in the Kincade blaze.

"We made a huge difference in this fire, compared to the last one, simply because we were ready for it," the fire marshall said.

As the Kincade fire raged, Collister said she used the communications system to show evacuated residents that their homes were still standing.

"I could take a picture of their neighborhood and say it's still there," she said.

COPE is one of a range of local networks set up to help residents grapple with the stress of living amid the growing threat of wildfires.

The Integrative Healers Action Network, created in Sonoma County during the 2017 fires, for instance, draws on the skills of chiropractors, massage therapists and osteopaths to provide crisis care to those in need.

Another small group started by a survivor of a 2008 wildfire is building tiny homes - some 200 square feet - provided free for survivors of the Kincade and Paradise blazes.

Strengthened community links made an enormous difference this year compared to the fire two years ago, said Hanselman, who sells antiques in picturesque Healdsburg.

"Two years ago, none of us had any idea what to do," she said. "Today I feel much more secure and confident."

That's something she and other residents are going to need more and more in coming years, she predicted.

"(With) climate change, it only gets worse," she said. "I joke it's not fall anymore. It's fire season. Every fall, the anxiety level definitely goes up."

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, editing by Laurie Goering

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