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Misinformation about B.C. Interior wildfire season on the rise

The White Rock Lake wildfire, Aug. 12, 2021.
Image Credit: FACEBOOK/Elizabeth Mo
August 15, 2021 - 8:00 AM

With most of B.C.’s wildfires burning in the Interior, residents are creating and turning to Facebook groups for information and that's creating issues for firefighters and Facebook groups themselves.

John Lilley is an administrator for the B.C. Sparkwatchers Coalition (Okanagan Chapter), a Facebook group that has been providing wildfire information since 2018 and has grown to 3,000 members.

Multiple wildfire watch and evacuation Facebook groups have sprung up like the Kamloops Area Fire Watch 2021 and Vernon Area Fire Watch 2021 groups and residents freely share information in those that already exist.

A lot of people rely on Facebook groups for information since they don’t get alerts directly from the B.C. Wildfire Service or from regional districts and towns, Lilley said. He volunteers full-time as an admin, from May until October, and said this year alone he’s put in more than 1,500 hours fact-checking posts.

“A lot of people when they’re a part of groups like this, this is where they get their news. This is where friends help friends or neighbours help neighbours,” Lilley said, adding someone may be out of town when their home is placed on evacuation alert so friends and neighbours can send them the information.

READ MORE: Winds expected to challenge crews on White Rock Lake wildfire

Administrators fact check posts, and they don’t allow posts from secondary information within the group, he said.

It also allows people to discuss their opinions about evacuation orders and it’s community based, he said.

In the last few years, especially this year, he’s noticed a change in the misinformation and communication being relayed about local wildfires, he said, but so far this year has been good for the Sparkwatchers coalition.

“We watch carefully over everything that gets posted,” he said.

If he has any questions about posts, he will reach out to the B.C. Wildfire Service, regional districts and fire centres.

“I worked for forestry when I was younger so I know what it’s about and what it contains and how it works,” he said.

The Kelowna resident became a part of the group as he was already keeping up to date with local wildfire information at the time, a few years ago.

The group has been growing, covering the Okanagan, the West Kootenays, the Shuswap and spreading as far as Princeton.

“We’ve been expanding our area for coverage and people have asked if we would consider expanding further. It’s a challenge but it’s something we’re taking on as a group,” Lilley said.

“I feel honoured, it makes me feel like I’m helping the community and I’m helping people. If I can get that information out enough in an appropriate time for them and it eases their minds knowing someone is there that’s looking out for them and getting them the information they need, I’m all for it."

READ MORE: 'Fire is literally in people’s backyards': More resources coming for White Rock Lake wildfire

Sometimes the information posted is controversial, like a video showing Monte Lake and Paxton residents' perspectives dealing with wildfires. Admins decided to keep it as it was the residents’ perspectives and the group encourages discussion, he said.

“Your opinions matter, it’s when you start pushing your beliefs that we say ‘hold on a second, take a step back,’” Lilley said. “If someone feels uncomfortable about it, we take a look at it so everyone feels safe in that Facebook group.”

Facebook has allowed people to create these groups and he doesn’t believe the social media giant should have more control of them, as they’re already following its community guidelines.

“I still like the idea of doing this sort of stuff, including the ones doing the evacuation of animals… we monitor ourselves within ourselves, or at least we try to, and I’m always talking to other groups in other admins. Each year we’re improving things,” he said.

But B.C. Wildfire Service information officer Jean Strong has said this is the worst year for the spread of misinformation the service has been dealing with online and across all social media platforms.

Earlier this week and in a press conference yesterday, the B.C. Wildfire Service addressed online reports saying the service didn’t initially respond to the White Rock Lake wildfire until days later and told residents to stand down on fighting it.

An initial attack crew was on scene within 30 minutes of when the fire was first reported, July 13, and it was burning at a rank four, aggressively in a timbered area and it was already 10 hectares in size. Crews were pulled off the initial response to evacuate properties in the area because it was a threat to both life and property, but Tolko and Douglas Lake Ranch were working along B.C. Wildfire to build a guard in the area. The following day, it had grown to 300 hectares, Strong said in a Thompson Nicola Regional District online meeting, Aug. 8. 

The Wildfire Service also stated in its recent update on the White Rock Lake wildfire, burning in the North Okanagan, that there is also a lot of misinformation on how structure protection works.

“The biggest challenge and concern with that is people are coming to us to confirm or clarify things and they’re coming to us scared or panicked or in a state where they’re making decisions that aren’t based on reality or facts. What really worries me is the people who don’t come to us for information and ultimately aren’t given the accurate details,” Strong said.

Strong has personally seen misinformation spread in Facebook groups and comments, on Reddit and on Twitter.

The B.C. Wildfire Service will directly respond to messages on comments on their social media pages and has started providing video wildfire updates as a way to relay information in a different format.

“It’s been really nice to see the positive feedback we’ve gotten on videos,” she said, adding they’ve also been working on providing education pieces on social media.

If they see misinformation trends online, the service tries to clarify using its own social media channels as well as in interviews to explain what’s actually happening.

The service hasn’t gone to Facebook to request the removal of misinformed comments or posts, but misinformation spreading on social media is, in general, a larger trend, Strong said.

For example, social media sites now have COVID-19 fact checking handles, she said.

“People are scared, and rightfully so and I think that plays into it quite a bit,'' she said.

As an example, often people don’t know what regional district they're living in so Strong has been working to connect people with appropriate resources.

Strong said if people are taking information from primary sources and sharing it to Facebook groups, “that’s wonderful.”

“I think what we’ve seen online in the last number of years is that people really like to engage in the group format so if that accurate information is being shared there I think that’s great. This year, I’ve also had a number of admins from the groups reach out to our team to clarify the information,” Strong said. 

Residents can reach out to fire centres, information officers or check the service’s wildfires of note page for more accurate information.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Carli Berry or call 250-864-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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