KPBS Radio Covers Wildfires Using Many Sources

San Diego public radio station KPBS was informing listeners Friday about the wildfires ravaging Southern California through the many sources it was forced to use all week as the blazes spread.

Though briefly knocked off the air, it still served as a resource by putting maps of the fire as well as evacuation and shelter information on its Web site.

On Sunday, KPBS-FM embarked on what became 75 straight hours of uninterrupted fire coverage, with updates, stories, listeners' calls and interviews.

KPBS doesn't have a couple of hundred journalists like the hometown daily, The San Diego Union-Tribune, or the flashy choppers of local television stations. But it's one of the city's last sources of radio news.

John Decker, the station's program director, said the wildfires threatened its transmitter.

"All of the telephone lines and the power lines that went up the side of the mountain were completely incinerated," Decker said. "We went off the air on Tuesday morning at about 5:30."

Decker worked the phones, and officials at a commercial music station decided the best way to serve the public was to broadcast KPBS instead. KPBS was back on the air on its own frequency a day later.

The station's employees who write for its Web site, www.kpbs.org, were scrambling, too.

Online Managing Editor Leng Caloh relied on My Map, a fairly new application from Internet search engine Google. People usually use My Map to pinpoint things like the best places to play golf or get a drink.

"The playing that a lot of us on the team do in our free time has been the key to our success," Caloh said.

Caloh and KPBS created a virtual map of Southern California speckled with symbols showing — down to the block – what had burned, where to find shelter, what roads were closed. It was persistently updated and became authoritative.

Even the state fire agency's Web site linked to KPBS.

That map has now been viewed more than 1.2 million times.

"It's really amazing that they managed to do this," said Google's My Map Project Manager Jessica Lee. "I know they're a small, shoestring operation. But if you give people the tools and the technology to do this, they'll do it."

KPBS also set up an account on the social-networking Web site Twitter to funnel text updates of just a sentence or two to subscribers on mobile phones. About 1,000 people took the feed.

KPBS is a member station of National Public Radio

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