Firefighter Used Website To Give Evacuees Up-To-Date Information

Advertisement

Over the past two weeks, Ray Webb has been one of Heber's luckiest residents.

When Heber-Overgaard was evacuated at the peak of the Rodeo-Chediski threat, he didn't have to leave since he's a volunteer fireman.

He knew throughout the disaster that his home of 13 years, and most treasured belongings, were safe.

He didn't have to sit in an evacuation center many miles away, wondering if his life had been knocked back to square one.

And this 42-year-old middle school teacher was able to use his unique vantage point and a borrowed Internet website to let his evacuated friends and neighbors know the true fate of their homes, their neighborhoods, their community ... minus the flow of hyperbole and misinformation that he saw pouring from television-news broadcasts since the fire began.

"I was there manning an ambulance when Rodeo swept through Pinedale," Webb said. "When I saw the TV coverage of the fire the next day, I couldn't believe it, they were so off base. They exaggerated, gave the wrong house counts, gave wrong information on how the fire came into town, all kinds of stuff."

And then, when the fire came to Overgaard, "I started seeing a bunch more garbage," he said. "I heard that Capps Middle School, where I teach, had burned down. It hadn't. I heard the high school and firehouse burned down. They hadn't. I heard there were six houses on the northeast corner of town that burned down. They hadn't. I heard Legacy Ranch had burned down. It hadn't.

"The people who live here weren't getting any facts," Webb said. "And they were also frustrated because, you know what? Their town just burnt down, and the media was entirely focused on Show Low, on Pinedale, on Lakeside."

It was a single TV-news story, however, that motivated Webb to launch the emergency website.

"They showed a picture of a Hot Shot crew member asleep as a house was burning in the background. Basically, they said, 'This is the way they fight fires in Heber-Overgaard.' Well, that firefighter had just ended an 18-hour shift. That really got my goat."

And that's when Webb who creates websites as a side business approached local Realtor Diane Dahlin and asked if he could convert her Internet site (www.herberovergaard.com) into a reliable information and communication-exchange center for evacuees.

As soon as the conversion was complete, Webb said, "It just snowballed. It had over 21,000 hits in its first five days. The message board was immediately flooded with letters of appreciation, venting, caring and, of course, desperate questions about their homes. I was getting 100 to 150 e-mails a day, and I answered every single one of them."

As a firefighter, Webb had "a few extra perks I took advantage of. I could drive around, look at homes, and then e-mail their owners to tell them what I saw," he said. "Sometimes, though, I didn't have to go out and look at a house, because I knew what areas had burned. So I could tell them right off the bat that their places were OK."

Too many times, however, he could not do that.

"Sometimes I had to tell people their house had burned down, and they'd e-mail back and ask if I could take a picture of what was left. I'd ask them, 'Do you really want to see your place right now?' And they'd write, 'Yes, we do. We've had our cry, now we need some closure.'

"So I'd send them pictures, and they would send me the most wonderful e-mails in return," Webb said. "I'm making so many friends that, if everyone buys me a beer who said they would, I'm gonna be drunk until Christmas. And I don't drink."

In addition to knowing what was really happening to his community and its homes, Webb knew what his fellow firefighters were up against.

"The night the fire came through Overgaard, it just beat us in the pants," he said. "It came in so hot. People said, 'Why didn't you stay there and fight?' Holy smoke, the flames roaring off those trees were 200 or 300 feet high. There wasn't anything anyone could have done."

Except share the truth.

"This website has been the project of my life," he said. "It's something I'll always be proud of."

And it's something he'll maintain "until the people who live here stop showing interest, until they stop writing and asking me to check their dogs, feed their chickens and cats, water their fruit trees and gardens.

"These are my neighbors, these are my friends. We care for each other, and that's the whole story."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.