How Facebook Saved a Town

This week, for the first time, I experienced Facebook in much more than a “reconnect with your 8th grade crush” way.  For the residents of La Canada Flintridge, facing the raging “Station Fire” with a dearth of TV news coverage (check LA Observed blog on that topic), Facebook became our lifeline to each other and to word of evacuations, power outages, friends’ safety, offers of shelter, and even panic and hearsay.

The Facebook phenomenon started August 26 when fire broke out in the Angeles National Forest–a hop, skip and a jump from many residents on the northern side of Foothill Blvd.  As flames grew higher and ashes rained on our sleepy town, TV news covered the Portuguese Fire in Palos Verdes.  Although “our” fire had a name–the Station Fire–no one source was able to provide the up-to-the minute coverage we needed to keep our families and homes at the ready.

So we did what any good 21st century town does when there’s a disaster–turned to the Internet.  More specifically, Facebook.  We’d rushed to Facebook once before when a runaway truck crashed into an intersection, killing 2 and injuring dozens–but this time it was different.  This time, it was about the emotional and physical survival of an entire town.

It started slowly at first, after a smoky day of fire over the hills.  A few “Is anyone else seeing flames from their house?” and “Has anyone else lost power?” messages began to pop up.  That gave way to a barrage of speculation as to exactly where  the fire was coming from–“I think it’s at the top of Ocean View.” “It is definitely just EAST of me.”  “We are on Green Crest right below that area. It’s not looking good.”

Soon, vacationers and relatives chimed in, quite panicked that their far-away home or family could be affected. “Thanks to LCF Facebookers, I have gotten better info here while out of town than from news sources,” said one.  Another wrote, ” I am in Spain and have been hearing bits and pieces…any info you can send my way would be appreciated.”

As is human nature, as the fire spread, so did the rumor mill. Everyone was certain their neighbor’s cousin’s best friend’s house was in flames.  “Heard two houses are on fire on Starlight Crest. Probably going to spread,” wrote one.  “A  friend said a young woman walking by his house just told him a house on Crown and Knight was in flames.” Luckily, neither turned out to be true.

Several posters continually added official updates from the city website and personnel, and others  posted direct quotes from fire personnel on scene. “Just saw one of the Fire Chiefs at Rite Aid on a break and he said it is moving towards Altadena.”

Many people simply prowled the hundreds of postings, adding a short reply or a thumbs up here and there.  For most , it was just comforting to be bound “together” in adversity, somewhere in this little Facebook bubble we created.  I kept picturing us in a (very large) lifeboat, sustaining each other towards an unknown future. Not only did Facebook keep everyone abreast of current and fast changing information, it also gave many peace of mind during a volatile time.

What was most amazing to me was the way our community used Facebook to lend a hand or reach our for help.  There were open offers of shelter, food, help evacuating, animal care—even clothing—from perfect strangers.  One posted about housing an unfamiliar senior citizen couple until it is safe for them to return home.  La Canada Facebookers publicly posted their cell phones and addresses–even told us where to find the spare key–anything to help a neighbor.

Tonight, as the fire rages in a different city (although large hot spots and flare-ups remain), La Canada is trying to get back to a sense of normalcy–whatever that may be.  Facebook has now become “group therapy”–the place where we go to talk about what we’ve been through, how we recover,  and how we can even slightly begin to show our thanks to heroic firefighters.

Soon, we’ll get back to posting about how our teens are driving us crazy or the wonderful travels we’ll take.  But we will forever be connected by the stories and information we shared during this tumultuous time.  For a short while, Facebook became our virtual water cooler, a place to comfort and be comforted.  And that’s how Facebook saved La Canada.

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