Wildfires are a common sight in the news during the hot, dry summer, a season that was particularly hot and dry this year in southern Colorado. Our state’s had its fair share of blazes, acreage totals, and containment percentages, but rarely are they as intimate or as destructive as the Waldo Canyon fire. As it began to rocket down the slopes that border FleshEatingZipper’s home town, the social media we use so often morphed into a bizarre experience as local friends maintained a minute to minute watch on the flames while the outside world sailed on without a care.
The Old School
I’m not old, but in my earliest years on the internet back in the late nineties, it was a rare experience to meet people from your own town unless you’d drafted your friends to join you. The internet revolution allowed users to chat instantly with people on the other side of the world, but through sheer distance and cultural differences, the technology allowed these people to feel more distant than before you knew them. If Waldo Canyon had been in flames in 1999, the news would’ve filtered down through persistent local TV reports and the town newspaper, maybe even a blip on the national news, but once you stepped online, you’d have no one to relate to, no one that really cared what your story was. Because you were too far away, your town was too different. It was far easier in those days to strike up a conversation about Kirk vs. Picard or the complexities world economy than it was to discuss how beautiful a recent rain was.
Lament them all you want, but social networks like MySpace and Friendster trained us for the Facebooks and Twitters to follow. We learned that it didn’t matter who we were, a reliable internet connection or a modern phone allowed us to share our minute details and idiosyncrasies with the world. Eventually, bundled with hundreds of millions of users, it became easy to turn all of your friends and family into points on your personal online network, even if you’d never so much as sent them a birthday card in the decade before.
The Waldo Canyon blaze began on Friday, June 22nd, the day before our site’s Star Trek marathon, and I made slight notes about the fire as it grew. What began as a small stream of smoke became a non-stop media event quickly.
Officials were confident in their ability to contain the fire by the 26th, but the winds shifted and forced the fire beyond the ridge of the mountains. The fire triple in size, forcing the evacuation of over twenty thousand people in the northwest end of town, for a total of thirty-two thousand displaced. The smoke spilled into town, creating a haze at twenty feet and a thick campfire smell all around. Ashes fell twenty-five miles away in the eastern town of Falcon. All the while, traumatic stories of evacuations and pictures of the maelstrom swirling over the town flooded Facebook and Twitter. Former Springs-ians felt for their friends and family, a sight unreal to those all around. But outside the dome of by-the-second updates on what the fire was doing and where it was moving, the world outside seemed to move on like normal, perfectly on course.
You don’t often get a chance to see the break between local and national social circles until you’re both on different tracks. The world simply didn’t care, why did they need to? Why did Google need to pause their I/O conference to reflect on vanishing forests south of Denver? Why did Bioware need to hold their extended endings for Mass Effect 3 after a large section of our town was sealed off? Why did anyone need to do anything? This was just another wildfire in a hot summer, not even the first in Colorado this year. Nearly four hundred houses burned and two people died, but it wasn’t much to make the world wink. But I’m not trying to erect a guilt trip here, not at all.
In reality, we’ve made great progress. The Waldo Fire proved to me, in much the same way citizens of a country in distress understood, or others watching their homes concede to the slaughter of natural disasters learned, that one can step out on the internet and find someone who knows what you’re going through… and they’re just down the street.