Monday, Nov. 5, 2007 | Sometimes it takes a disaster on the scale of last month’s wildfires to remind journalists that when called upon, they can be public servants. Many reporters found themselves evacuated from their homes — at least one lost his home — but they stayed at their job. Local TV stations took a huge financial hit by running days of wall-to-wall, ad-free coverage. The Union-Tribune devoted almost its entire staff to the blaze, and plucky KPBS teamed up with a rock station to remain on the air when the fire knocked out its transmitter. There were many standouts, and the local coverage helped me and many other people.

While San Diego’s news outlets were doing all they could to keep local audiences informed, the national media flocked to San Diego, sensing a story of global proportions unfolding. These far-flung journalists must have sucked down one lungful too many of hot Santa Ana winds because they were soon burping it right back up.

They found the hook for their story in the eye-popping numbers of evacuees that spread faster and farther than the fire itself.

It started on day three of the fires, Tuesday, Oct. 23. The massive headline on the front page of The San Diego Union-Tribune read “300,000 Flee Fires.” The Los Angeles Times, which won a Pulitzer for its 2003 fire coverage, reported that things were actually much worse:

At least 233,000 households in San Diego County were asked to evacuate. At 2.7 people per household, which is the county average, that would amount to 620,000 people. Although all did not necessarily heed the request to leave their homes, enough did to tax evacuation centers and cause massive traffic jams.

Like a scene out of the movie “War of the Worlds,” traffic northbound on Interstate 5 from Oceanside to San Juan Capistrano was bumper to bumper, cars and trucks loaded with belongings as people headed to relative safety north, black smoke darkening the sky behind them.

The aliens must have arrived, because that evening, Brian Williams anchored the NBC Nightly News from a charred San Diego suburb, and tried to put the events into context:

Tonight, let’s take a look at some of the numbers as you survey some of the damage: 540,000 people have been evacuated. That’s over half a million Californians, that’s a number larger than the evacuations during Katrina. That makes it the largest peacetime movement of Americans since the Civil War.

County officials were indeed estimating half a million evacuees. As for Katrina, more than 1 million fled the storm’s wrath. But I’m stumped by the Civil War reference. Who really knows such things? It sure sounded good though, and CNN and Fox News used it, too.

The story had a momentum of its own that had been steadily building throughout the day. The Associated Press, my former employer, soon had word of a stunning development that borrowed the Los Angeles Times brand of mathamagic to beat the newspaper at its own game:

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Faced with unrelenting winds whipping wildfires into a frenzy across Southern California, firefighters all but conceded defeat Tuesday to an unstoppable force that has chased an estimated 1 million people away …

The fires also forced the evacuation of more than 350,000 houses, most of them in San Diego County. With the area’s average household size of 2.6 people, that means the evacuation could encompass nearly 910,000 people.

TIME, the Washington Post and CNN, to name but a few, followed suit.

Cheering the reporters on was Sheriff Bill Kolender. On Oct. 22, day two of the Witch and Harris fires, he inexplicably and — as it turned out, incorrectly — predicted the blazes were “probably the worst fire this county has ever had — well worse than the Cedar fire.” Two days later, Kolender announced “We’ve evacuated more people than were evacuated in Katrina.” Maybe he had been watching NBC Nightly News.

It was bad, but it wasn’t that bad. These numbers don’t hold up under scrutiny. They also fail the common sense test. If 1 million people had hit the roads in San Diego County our freeways would have looked like, well, they would have looked like the roads in Los Angeles. Perhaps sensing this instinctively, the Los Angeles Times published a front-page story Thursday calling the numbers into question — the only major news outlet to do so — but only in paragraph 16 did the newspaper reveal it had fallen into the same trap.

So where were these figures coming from? It appears that many were the product of the new Reverse911 software that had been installed following the deadlier and more destructive 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County. Reverse911 allows a user to highlight an area on a map, record a message and then, with the push of a button, instantly dial thousands of numbers and issue instructions to evacuate.

The county placed about 450,000 such calls during the October wildfires, according to Jan Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. County officials and reporters both relied on the system to provide the public with the number of households who had told to evacuate. The problem was the number of Reverse911 calls placed was simply a number and nothing more. The Sheriff’s Department was using the Reverse911 to call every number in an evacuated area. That means every fax, each second, third or fourth line, and every business line got a Reverse911 call, Caldwell said. In addition, not all Reverse911 calls went through. The Sheriff’s Department purchased their list of numbers from a commercial vendor, and that list was not completely up-to-date, Caldwell told me. Finally, some ignored the call to evacuate, most notably Jeff Bowman, San Diego’s fire chief during the 2003 Cedar Fire.

It’s unlikely we will ever know how many people were evacuated during the wildfires. That hasn’t stopped county officials from trying to count. Holly Crawford of the county’s Office of Emergency Services says a total of 515,000 people were evacuated. How did the county arrive at this number? Crawford said county officials used computer software that allowed them to overlay Census data on a map of the evacuated areas. Maybe I’ve become cynical, but before I believe any more evacuation numbers, I want to hear from more than a technician working with outdated census data.

A rule of thumb in journalism became apparent: The distance between the reporter and his or her audience was directly proportional to the degree of inaccuracy in the coverage. In other words, a reporter communicating with people far away was far more likely to get it wrong.

Unfortunately, sometimes bad information makes a good story into an unbelievable one.

Seth Hettena, a San Diego-based freelance journalist and author, will be writing an occasional column “The Peanut Gallery” about local media and journalism. You can contact him and send him your complaints, thoughts or stories about San Diego reporters by going to his website: www.sethhettena.com.

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