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Surveying the damage (Photo courtesy of McCoy family)

Relief online

Disaster | Technology has played a key role in assisting families affected by the Colorado wildfire

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.-Many residents in this Colorado community first found out about the Waldo Canyon wildfire via Facebook or text messages. And instead of turning on the TV for news of their homes' fate, young evacuees sifted through Facebook postings of photos and videos from online news outlets shared by friends on their profile wall.

Jessica McCoy, 20, was out to dinner with her parents when the first fire-related text message came in on Saturday, June 23. Soon all their cell phones were buzzing: a wildfire had started near their home on the wooded, northwestern edge of the city. They headed home to discover their house was just 100 feet north of the mandatory evacuation line.

The next day a new Facebook group popped up: Waldo Canyon Fire Assistance, which connected people in the Colorado Springs area who had needs to those who could help. It has now grown to more than 5,500 members.

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During the emergency, thousands of posts on the page offered resources for fire victims such as updated evacuation reports, people offering to help move items from endangered homes, free childcare services, links to helpful websites, businesses offering free services or steep discounts, and prayer. The Facebook group's information files could be updated by any group member and included people donating free housing and pet sitting, evacuation help center sites, Denver relief supply drop-off locations, and a sample temporary rental lease form.

When the fire screamed out of control on Tuesday, June 26, the McCoys received a reverse-911 call saying they had to evacuate their Mountain Shadows home immediately. Within 10 minutes, Jessica and her parents, Beau and Jonni McCoy, were out the door.

"It was mayhem, like a horror movie," Beau said. "Cars were off-roading trying to get into the neighborhood once the roads were blocked. Then the sky went black [with smoke] and you could only see two cars in front of you." The McCoys used their smart phones to take photos of the madness and uploaded them straight to Facebook.

That evening at a friend's house, Jessica was glued to Facebook, searching for news about the fire. She suddenly froze: There on the screen was a photo of her home in flames. Jessica started sobbing and ran out of the room to find her mom, who confirmed they were now homeless.

In the midst of this heartbreak, people reached out to help the McCoys using social media and other internet tools. A friend organized a "House Cooling Party" via Evite to supply basic needs like toilet paper, soap, and office supplies. Viewers of the invitation clicked on what supplies they would donate and brought them to a drop-off location. For larger household items, such as a coffeemaker, tables, and lamps, another friend created an online Target bridal registry. (There is no "disaster relief" registry.) Contributors purchased the family a Target gift card or bought a specific item and shipped it directly to them.

In addition, Jessica was "friended" on Facebook by a girl she'd never met who posted, "You don't know me, but I've been praying for you. Can I take you shopping?" A friend she hadn't talked to since middle school also "messaged" her, asking if she could bring over a meal.

Ninety percent of the homes on the McCoy's block burned to the ground. But the neighbors are pulling together, vowing to restore their homes.

"Because we all share a common experience, we plan to get together once a month for a potluck and compare notes," Beau said. "We also have an email group and a Facebook page [for families rebuilding]. It's neat."

It's a new generation's tragedy: They heard about it, discussed it, and lived through it with social media. In fact, while researching this sad event, I found the McCoys by posting a "status update" on Facebook, asking my 565 friends if they knew of a family I could interview who lost their home to the fire.

Today's technology made it faster for Colorado Springs residents to learn and exchange key information, and it will speed recovery, too. Thank God for Facebook.

Related stories

Devastating view: Their house was spared, but a Colorado family now must rebuild their life | Sarah Padbury | July 16

Winning against wildfires: Colorado Springs faces hundreds of homes and millions of dollars lost to the record-breaking Waldo Canyon fire, but with a renewed spirit of togetherness | Sarah Padbury | WORLD July 28 issue (posted July 13)

Called to action: Church members rally to serve their community during the Colorado wildfires | Sarah Padbury| July 11

Concert haul: Benefit performance aids wildfire victims and firefighters in Colorado | Sarah Padbury | July 6

Burning blazes: Some Colorado Springs residents return to homes, but with Obama visit underway, wildfires continue | Mindy Belz | June 29

Sarah Padbury
Sarah Padbury

Sarah is a writer, editor, and adoption advocate. She and her husband live with their six teenagers in Castle Rock, Colo.

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