The Important Fire Driven Community Conversation
One of the elements essential to a rural county is community conversation. Fire conditions, insurance options, public transportation, economic development, and a myriad of topics keep both the neighborhood and the lone family at the end of the road informed and engaged. Our widespread rural community is made up of citizens with diverse backgrounds, locations, tribes, and walks of life, including every age group, income, and affiliation.
Ordinarily, knowledge and opinions weave through familiar affiliations that feel safe but also tends to form group thought. When a topic comes up that crosses over all the comfort zones, information sources are sought to understand the new situation. Unfortunate examples of this universal disturbance are years of fire emergencies threatening everyone in Lake County at one time or another.
During the 2015 Rocky Fire which seemed like a fire to end all fires, evacuees who fled to the Moose Lodge near Clearlake Oaks were filled with concerns about what the fire was doing, how long would they be there and are the neighborhoods safe. The fire and support agencies had their own important missions with interests confined to 12-hour operational briefings. Information officers couldn’t keep up with the mix of public concerns and fears or often find the right words for stressed-out evacuees. Into this void stepped the Facebook social media rumor mill which convincingly reported that the fire was burning Clearlake houses and jumping Highway 53 by so-called eye witness experts. The sky was not falling, but confusion reigned.
Into this rumor mill stepped the local, unpaid programmer volunteers who staff Lake County’s not for profit community radio. The public scene quickly became one reminiscent of world war years with families leaning into the radio so they wouldn’t miss a word. The modern twist was the phone-in caller who asked for information or reported on what they saw. This exchange was quickly joined by confirmation calls or more requests for information. The Agency personnel responsible for public interface soon saw this as an important tool and showed up at the broadcast booth participating with what they knew. This was followed by the Sheriff, local elected leaders, and County Services Directors hoping to reach the community with solid information and news. This new community conversation over the years of fire emergencies was transformative.
The between fire emergency conversation moved toward recovery efforts and problems, insurance gaps, fire protection setbacks, and available public resources. New discussion topics about the economic fallout from the loss of businesses, tourism, and tax base that drives government public safety programs were extremely important. The recent preemptive power shutdown decisions by PG&E is a very vocal recent topic. Of course, none of these important conversations, sans corporate messaging can take place today without plain talk, free speech radio supported through small community donations.
A traditional role for county government is promoting economic prosperity, delivering social services, community policing, and an informed public. It accomplishes some of this through one dollar leases of county buildings for Senior/Community Centers run by non-profit organizations and with staffed libraries, museums and community parks for family use. One must ask, why is there no such support for the medium that delivers rare, important community conversation in such a time of change?
KPFZ community radio programmers assembled in front of the Board of Supervisors recently and made a simple request for just that. Forgiving the small annual broadcast tower fees would relieve some burden for a lean budget providing essential public dialogue that the county both needs but couldn’t afford any other way.
The precedent was already established decades ago through a $30,000 county grant to build the KPFZ broadcasting equipment and early offers to provide county buildings to house the effort. We must have forgotten.
Presently, KPFZ can reach the whole county through either airwave broadcasts or live streaming on the internet. The future could bring individual replays through pod-casts of important public information. What is needed is an enlightened County Board of Supervisors who already support community value programs. This decision would be a bargain and delivers big. Just what we need in these lean times.