Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Misinformation, attention-seeking and other bad bushfire behaviour

It has to be said. Well, I feel the need to say it, so here goes. During the recent bushfire emergency here in southern Tasmania, social media was both a source of very useful information (how good are the Tasmania Fire Service, Tasmania Police and TasAlert?) and a cesspit of exaggerated claims, misinformation, unsubstantiated drama, attention seeking and just plain silly behaviour. Among the rubbish I saw online during the two weeks of high alert included:
  • Geeveston is being evacuated!! Everyone is being door-knocked and told to leave!!! (Actually no, they weren't).
  • Photos of people in the centre of town and many miles from the fire front hosing down their houses using town water, encouraging others to do the same. At one point, Geeveston (which really did need the water at that point) almost ran out, not helped by this crazy over-preparedness no doubt. I reckon any work you do hosing down stuff that far in advance is a waste of time and will evaporate in minutes with the heat of an approaching fire... but then, I'm not a fire expert so don't take my advice!
  • Our whole valley is BURNING!!! 
  • The fire has crossed the Huon River!!!
  • People misinterpreting the useful data on the Sentinel Hotspots web site from Geoscience Australia.
  • Some folk were driving up roads with active fires just to take photos for Instagram. I saw videos of flames licking the edges of Bermuda Road (what the hell are you doing there taking video?!) and photos of smoldering tress taken up our road while the fire service was still backburning and creating fire breaks. Seriously, get out of the way and let the firies do their job.
  • A couple of very good local photographers took some amazing shots of the fires at night, making it clear that the photos were taken with a zoom lens - which people then re-posted as if the fire was bearing down on them.

One of my neighbours lives on her own up here hear the forestry and was so anxious for five days before we actually needed to evacuate that she called or texted me almost every hour, asking "should we leave yet? Are you leaving now?" This wasn't helped by the misinformation and drama she was hearing. Please, before you post a dramatic, dare I say inflammatory, post on social media in an emergency situation, get your facts straight and think about the potential impact of your post on people who are already stressed and anxious. There's a reason the Tasmanian Fire Service alerts seem a little vague - everyone needs to make the best decision for themselves at the time based on known facts. What's right for a fit couple with the equipment and will to defend their own property is probably not right for a frail elderly person, someone with severe asthma or a family with five children and a menagerie of animals.

A couple of days after we were able to return home, I received an invitation to join a Facebook group that aims to help people near the Tahune fire to communicate. I love what the group admin had to say about sharing information in the group:

*** Please make sure that any information you share is ACCURATE. By accurate, we mean from TFS, police, a 100% accurate conversation you have had with someone on site or you have seen it with your own eyes, NOT what your mate heard from someone else. We don't want people scared for no reason. Also, when regarding your safety, ONLY follow advice from emergency services! Stay safe!

Hear, hear.

A couple of other tips that might be useful if you're thinking about how to prepare for the increased likelihood of extreme weather events in the future:

  • Put a computer backup strategy in place now, well, before disaster strikes. What about all those photos on your home PC? My husband David runs a computer help business and was contacted by customers wanting to know what to do when it was really too late to be thinking about it. You can read his article about it here.
  • Internet-connected security cameras are a good investment for peace of mind. They can send you alerts and allow you to monitor what's happening at your back door when you are not there. Ours allowed us to know that we still had power and a house! And we saw when the firies door-knocked to check that no-one was still home in our road when the fire was getting close. Totally worth it.
Security camera shot of the firies door-knocking our place.

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