How Much Info Should the Public Know?

A few days ago I got criticized heavily by a number of the public agencies for the article I wrote (Aug 10: Fire Command Considers Burning Out Backcountry) because they felt it was too sensational and scared people.

My feeling is the public should always be kept as informed as possible. The burning operations the Incident Commanders propose is immense. I'm completely supportive of the actions. Being for or against this isn't the point of my reporting - it's at least telling us now what the whole plan involves rather than letting us discover it later.

So my question is: What's too much information when it comes to this fire?


Independent Discussion Guidelines

When it comes to public safety, being informed is key... so there is no such thing as "too much information."

robert (Robert LeBlanc)
August 12, 2007 at 9:21 a.m. (Suggest removal)

For the first time in my life, we wrote down an evacuation plan. This is thanks to the information. We don't want unnecessary panics, but not believing in the seriousness of the situation because the officials in charge surpress it does not help.

GoletaResident (anonymous profile)
August 13, 2007 at 3:23 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Ray: I think an important but perhaps subtle distinction should be made here between the "quantity" of information and the "presentation" of that information. I think the issue with version 1 of the story wasn't so much "too much information" vs. "too little," as: was it accurate, was it reasonably objectively worded, was it biased (even unintentionally) or not, etc. When I read the earlier version of the story it did strike me as somewhat alarming. The current version is much less so. I think the difference probably has less to do with the *amount* of info presented than with the wording. E.g., I think it originally said the fire could ultimately consume over 25% of SB County (my reaction: wow!! that's huge!!) and now it says "it could consume a large part of SB County" (reaction: hmmm). Molumby's quote about not being able to go back after you pull the switch and speaking to a "stunned" crowd sounded somewhat alarming, but if the quote was accurate and not pulled out of some important qualifying context, that's fair. "Stunned" is probably a bit of a subjective evaluation--if instead you'd chosen the word "attentive" the tone of the sentence would have been different, less alarming. And finally, the original article said (if I remember correctly) that they were already committed to doing the huge planned burn, whereas subsequent version(s) say it's being considered. Big difference in meaning, and big difference in the reaction it produces (at least to me).

In general I'd say you're doing a terrific job of covering this fire. That one article (version 1) did have a much more alarming tone & wording than any others I can remember reading, but I'll leave it to those closer to the action to decide if it was fair or not--I'm certainly no firefighting expert or disaster planner! My guess is that the fact that the current version has been reworded to be somewhat less alarming suggests that you and others agreed it had room for improvement.

smithchuck (anonymous profile)
August 13, 2007 at 4:18 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I'm already on record with my strong support of Ray Ford's reporting. His original statements arose from first-hand experience, on the ground, in meetings with the decision makers and from his own expert direct observation. Alarming? Well, duh. What's not alarming about a 93,000-acre wildfire, large parts of which are burning out of control in an inaccessible wilderness? To censor the best reporter we have would be a huge mistake. Of course the public has a right to know.

StephelIndependent (anonymous profile)
August 13, 2007 at 5:30 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I'd be more alarmed without Ray's accurate reporting, because then I'd be sitting here in a sea of smoke wondering WHAT was going on. Please, keep telling us straight. And thanks for making a very complex fire at least somewhat understandable.

keisaacson (anonymous profile)
August 13, 2007 at 5:37 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Should we be worried about the fire's proximity to the power lines that feed Santa Barbara county? I haven't done much research on the subject, but from what I hear, the sole source of electricity comes down from the mountains.

robert (Robert LeBlanc)
August 13, 2007 at 7:12 p.m. (Suggest removal)

It seems odd to me that while the other media outlets report that the fire may be coming to SB and everyone should be ready to pack up and leave, public agencies criticize Ray for sensationalizing and scaring people. They have it backwards! Ray, you (and the Independent) have been providing the community a invaluable service while the other media outlets have fallen flat on their faces. As a person living in the foothills I was very upset about the lack of information until I found your stories. Now I can make plans for what needs to be done based on facts, not on the drivel from the other sources. Thank You for providing the information we need as opposed to what agencies think we need. We can all think for ourselves if provided the facts.

torotoro (anonymous profile)
August 13, 2007 at 8:20 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Ray is my hero among heroes. I greatly appreciate all of the men and women putting their lives on the line to try to keep us and our communities safe - we can't put a price on what they do, nor can we thank them enough. Firefighters rock!
That said, I also greatly value the fantastic reporting by Ray Ford. This website and Ray's articles are the place i come to for in depth and up-to-date news on the fire. Let's remember Ray when it comes time to nominate a S.B. MAN OF THE YEAR next year!

I, too, was motivated to start making evacuation plans and to gather important documents or their copies and take them to a newer, larger safety deposit box at our bank. Tomorrow I will take some family videos there as well. And after twenty years of talking about it, we have finally videotaped the contents of every single messy drawer and closet - and room - in our house, made two dvd's of the tape, one for the s.d. box and one has been mailed to a relative 2,000 miles away.

I am running into a lot of complacency among locals who feel the fire is way too far away for us to really concern ourselves with. Remembering the speed with which the sundowners pushed the Painted Cave fire through the mountains and down to the ocean, I am concerned about the current weather forecasts.

I have been sending fire updates to a ton of people that I have email addresses for and have highly recommended this website. If you haven't done so yet, maybe you should think about letting the people near and dear to you - and those you don't know all that well - know about the great info found here!

Once again, thank you Ray and Kelley for bringing us these informative and crucial articles and photographs.

A grateful citizen.

elaz (anonymous profile)
August 13, 2007 at 8:21 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Here's what's important: the Zaca Fire Incident Commander has faith in Ray Ford to tell the story, or Ray would not be where he is to get the story. Keep up the good work Ray.

JAMY (J'Amy Brown)
August 13, 2007 at 9:07 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Thanks for all of the comments - the point was how to draw the line between giving enough info and too much info. As an example, by focusing on the huge perimeter they were looking at burning and not on the strategies and tactics, I know that scared a lot of people, who felt like the whole county was about to incinerate. I'm exaggerating but the point is you can be factually correct and still not get it right. I've tried to do both but with that one story I didn't get it all right.

Do any of you have examples for this fire as to when you've felt you've needed more info and times when you felt by getting too much of it that it wasn't helpful??

riveray (Ray Ford)
August 13, 2007 at 10:36 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Here is an example on how your information has come in handy: Two Fridays ago, when the smoke was really bad, there was a chain email going around town saying get ready to evacuate and spreading fear into people. I'm sure you've seen the email, and it was from some guy who was talking to a fire fighter on the street. People were calling me worried about all the smoke, ash, and rumors, knowing that I had religiously been checking your dispatches as well as inciweb, sbcfire, etc. I was able to talk a few people down because I knew what was going on from your Indy online stories. Because of your reporting, I knew by early afternoon that yes indeed the fire had made a huge run to the south that day but was still on the other side of the Santa Ynez River and we'd be warned if it crossed the river and started heading up the front range. Had we not had you and your info, we'd have to believe chain emails floating around town spreading fear and panic, or worse yet be looking at the sky and developing our own rumors. Keep up the good work. You deserve an award after this bad boy is contained.

pope (Paul Costales)
August 13, 2007 at 11:19 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I prefer to make my decisions from the facts whether they are frightening or not. I'm trained as a researcher and i have been really disappointed in county and city public info sites with their canned daily updates with close to zero new info. regarding the fire.

As a parent , I need real time information to look out for my kids in the event of excessive smoke in the city or whatever a fire of this size may bring with it. I am grateful that you are doing your job with such diligence and integrity. Inciweb and your site have been clear and full of information. Thank you for restoring my faith in journalism. I for one think it is reasonable to have a bit of concern when a fire of this magnitude is in our backyard. Please continue bringing us the same caliber of information, it really is appreciated!

angelakelly (anonymous profile)
August 13, 2007 at 11:52 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Good journalism should always side on providing the public with more facts and information. The reporting by Ford has been outstanding in this regard. That said, I was a bit alarmed at the backcountry burn out story. I really cannot point to one specific item in the article, just the overall tone. Perhaps a stronger disclaimer could have been in the led to state this was a possibility amongst others, and a description of other options.

That said, The Independent is by far the preminent news source for the county of Santa Barbara. If anything the daily newspaper in Santa Barbara is the one that should be taken to task. Not only is their lead link on the Zaca Lake fire section currently dead--they do not even allow a message board discussion amongst citizens.

A message board is a great way to reduce anxiety and panic as new posters can correct inaccuracies posted by previous guests.

AndrewAC (anonymous profile)
August 14, 2007 at 9:15 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Ray, don't listen to these criticisms - you are doing us all an immense service, follow your own lights. And I agree with the person who says you deserve an award after this bad boy is out.

HiAll (anonymous profile)
August 14, 2007 at 9:19 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I live at the very top of Toro Canyon (first property the fire will reach if it comes over the top) and early last week we were inundated with smoke from the fire. Knowing that if the smoke is blowing our way the fire probably was too, I went to the other local news sources (and I use that term very loosely as they do not seem to realize they are supposed to be news sources) and could find nothing as to what was going on. Inciweb was having problems, and when I did access it, it was about 36 hrs behind, and 961-5770 was always busy. To say my wife and I were a bit concerned was an understatement and we were unsure what to do; bolster the defenses and get the fire hoses out, or pack up the animals and head for the flatlands. I then found your articles on the Independent web page and instantly had the insight I needed to plan what I needed to do. You have provided clear, concise assessments of what is transpiring on the other side of the hill, and I have been using it to decide on a daily basis what I should be concerned with. If I had to rely on the other sources for my information, I would be operating with out essential facts and could easily make decisions that could make the entire situation worse. Thanks again for the reports and providing the information that is REQUIRED for many of us to make informed decisions in this dynamic situation. As far as I am concerned, there cannot be too much information, but having too little is a major problem.

torotoro (anonymous profile)
August 14, 2007 at 11:11 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I want to echo what torotoro stated above.
More detail really helps me understand what this fire is doing, and I appreciate very much your giving it to us. Please keep up the detail, including updated maps, which are hard to find elsewhere except in such large scale that it's hard to identify landmarks, drainages, etc.

That article that caused some concern did scare me a little, but I didn't think that was a bad thing at the time, and I still don't. And when I attended the town meeting on Friday evening, it seemed obvious that the commanders had already made the decision. They weren't "considering" it. So if you were premature at all, it could only have been by a few hours.

Your coverage has been tremendous, simply tremendous. Thanks very much.

mtndriver (anonymous profile)
August 14, 2007 at 4:22 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Ray, please keep up the brilliant reporting you have done on this fire which has been all the more important to this community because of the failure of our government, public agencies and other news media to provide a meaningful and timely analysis of the threat of the fire to Santa Barbara and the strategic implications of firefighting tactics, terrain and weather. Follow your instincts and don't look back. A fully informed public will be less likely to panic than one who gets all the bad news as a surprise at the last minute.

Earl (anonymous profile)
August 14, 2007 at 6:56 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Something is sensational and biased only if it is not true. When someone writes that if plan is followed, it could burn out 25% of SBCounty, it is only sensationalistic if the area in question is NOT 25% of SB County. If someone says that people sat in stunned silence, it is only biased if they were not stunned and silent. I can not say if these two things are true or not as I have no idea if the area would amount to 25% of SB County or if people were merely attentive as opposed to stunned because I was not at the meeting. I can say that if it is 25% and people were stunned, it is biased NOT to write this in an article. 'Attentive' sounds like a word used to described people listening to a lecture on a pleasant subject and is not at all accurate or unbiased if people were sitting there is shock with their mouth's open. I can say that I've been frustrated by the media coverage of this fire. No one is askeing the questions that I would like answered like: why did those in charge of the fire reduce the man power before this current dramatic flareup? Could the fire have been contained when the fire was just smoldering? If so, who made the decision and why? Was this a conscience decision to allow some of the backcountry to burn in order to reduce the fire load? Are these decisions being made as part of some nation-wide policy change to allow fires to burn? Did they not anticipate that weather conditions might change? I don't know the answer to these questions so these are not criticisms but I think we need to ask questions. How did 70% contained and @30,000 acres burned become only 44% contained and over 100,000 acres burned (according to incaweb today) in the space of 2 weeks? In today's political climate, asking questions is akin to criticism but it should not be so.

maxthecat (anonymous profile)
August 14, 2007 at 10:03 p.m. (Suggest removal)

How much info should the public know? Well, this small portion of the public would sure like to know what is expected for the northeast portion of the fire. I understand why most folk are enthused that the fire is marching north and east, away from Santa Barbara. But me, I live northeast of the fire, and got up this morning to discover my house is within the expanded closure of the Los Padres Forest. (I live in Pine Mountain Club, north of the Chumash Wilderness.) Although the fire is 15-20 miles away as the condor flies, I'm uneasy: what has them worried enough that they've closed this area, and should I be worried, too? Is the fire going to skip over highway 33 and keep coming?

It's Day Fire deja vu, all over again. (To be clear: we're NOT under an evacuation warning. But is it time to start packing?)

Information, please! :-)


keisaacson (anonymous profile)
August 15, 2007 at 9:41 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Perhaps the public officials that were critical of your reporting felt that you beat them to the punch - they basically announced the same plan that you detailed in your article during the Mission Canyon fire briefing at SBMNH later in the day, correct?

For me, more information is bad when there is no context. Statistics, numbers, percentages only tell part of the story. Very few Santa Barbara residents are familiar with the backcountry, so when they hear about landmarks like Old Man Mountain or Little Pine or Indian Creek there is little in the way of reference. Your articles have provided contextual information that puts real topography on the data from sites like Inciweb and YubaNet.

Providing information is also bad when you have citizens who have poor critical thinking abilities. Without going into a rant, let me say that due to many factors which are beyond the scope of this commentary, it is my opinion that the average person has a difficult time with media literacy. Public agencies and their spokespeople are well aware of this; hence their criticism.

Please keep reporting, and we will keep reading.

Bargs (anonymous profile)
August 15, 2007 at 10:42 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I'll give you an example of vital info which is being withheld today (8/16). The authorites have blacked out readings of Particulate Matter in Santa Barbara and are only reporting the ozone levels. This is unconscionable, and should be rectified immediately. I reject the argument that such information would only induce panic. (Could lower hotel bookings, true.) People with small children, the elderly, those suffering from allergies and asthma need to know so they can take steps accordingly. Might "The Independent" look into this?

Nina (anonymous profile)
August 16, 2007 at 4:02 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Real-time air quality information for particulate matter and ozone from the Santa Barbara air monitoring station is available at
This information is never blacked-out. (information is sometimes temporarily unavailable due to equipment maintenence - it is not blacked-out.)

AirInfo (anonymous profile)
August 17, 2007 at 11:08 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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