'Fire blogging' tech expert on how fellow evacuees and networks are holding up

Jim Forbes, a retired tech editor and founding producer of Network World's then DemoMobile brand, is among the quarter-million evacuees coping with those horrifying San Diego-area wildfires. As you might expect from a mobility expert, he's filling his shelter time "fire blogging." And he's also answered my e-mailed questions about how the people and technology are holding up in his shelter.

Where exactly are you and what are the conditions/spirits like in the shelter?

I'm in Escondido, CA - about three miles from the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park right at the edge of the Witch Creek Fire, which I assume will be stopped before it gets to either Hawaii or the first set of breakers on the coast.

Most people at the shelter were upbeat but very thirsty for real news. In all, almost one quarter of a million people have been ordered to evacuate their homes in San Diego County. Most of the shelters filled up quickly. The shelters are run by volunteers and are efficient, clean and well run. There was a constant supply of snacks and fluids and chow was served efficiently and cheerfully at 6:30 last night. I was impressed with the attitude of other evacuees and how willing everyone was to share.

Could you describe the technology you're using and how you're using it?

I carry a Lenovo X60 convertible tablet with an integrated cell modem everywhere I go. Because I'm retired I honestly can't afford the $70 monthly subscription fee, so when I need persistent connectivity I sign up for a $15 day pass from Verizon. The day pass is available only to people with computers equipped with an integrated cell modem, and I rely on it for connectivity up and down the West Coast and even when I'm in remote parts of the state.

The shelter set up a dedicated computer room with an 802.11 a,b, and g network which worked like a charm. Lots of people brought notebooks when they left their home, so there was a whole lot of IM traffic in and out of the shelter. The local cell networks were subsumed by traffic early in the day so people were texting friends and loved ones a lot.

Local media did a great job of telling people that the most efficient way of telling others where they were or assuring those people that they "were safe" was by texting, which has a lower bandwidth demand than voice. With 250,000 people turned into refugees by the fires there was a lot of stress on voice networks. I only got a "network unable to place call" message twice yesterday on I-15 as I went zero miles an hour.

The other piece of technology I rely on and carry in my "go now" bag is a Belkin Skype wireless phone. It's sturdy and small enough to nestle safely in my bright red backpack and it finds Skype and connects automatically wherever there's an 802.11 network. I keep all my portable electronics fully charged and ready to go. My Skype wireless phone has become an integral part of my mobile equipment and it's a great backup or primary communications tool.

Thinkpad rules. I got about 5.75 hours of battery life yesterday under very rough conditions and my little sub-four-pound ThinkPad X60 convertible baby goes everywhere with me and has become an extension of my life. Interestingly, most of the emergency service personnel I saw yesterday and this morning were also carrying and using ThinkPads.

The air quality down here is measured in pounds per cubic foot of air, so I'm taking my pets up to Azusa, CA where Ma Forbes lives, later his morning.

In the unlikely event I come home to a charred slab, I'm not worried. I don't have anything I can't replace or am afraid to lose. I've got my health, a nice retirement, and a lot on a mountaintop from which I can see north to Riverside County and west to Camp Pendleton and the Pacific Ocean.

Is there technology the shelter should have but doesn't?

Local emergency services gets straight A's for its use of 802.11 mesh networks - a technology launched in 2000 at DemoMobile that's now become pervasive.

The presence of 802.11 networks at evacuation shelters is now assumed and is widely used by relief workers and refugees alike.

In your post you criticized the media for failing to provide specific information on open escape routes and such. Has that info been available elsewhere?

The information is there if you take the time to find it and know where to look. As an old reporter used to dodging through traffic to get to sundry news assignments, I'm a big believer in the power of printed maps and surface streets. As a culture, we're way too used to eight-lane super highways. For most of yesterday the only way out of Escondido was on surface streets and back country roads or through Camp Pendleton.

The real kicker in North San Diego County came late yesterday afternoon when the fire jumped I-15 and threatened the small town of Fallbrook. Emergency service made the decision to evacuate FallBrook in a hurry and the Marines at Camp Pendleton really came through by helping to guide evacuees through the base to I-5 on the coast.

Is everything working as it should? Any glitches?

I have 135 PSI of water pressure at my home, two monster agricultural rain bird sprinklers and a great water supply. Everything is functioning well. I still have grid-based electricity but I also have an emergency solar-powered circuit that feeds a row of monster L16, 6-volt batteries that go into a 200 amp inverter. Oh, I also have two 50-foot fire hose packs, a hydrant wrench and a fire nozzle stacked neatly down at the hydrant on the street. I'm a native Southern California boy, so I'm used to sundry conflagrations and the infrequent earthquake.

The one message local media could have been better communicating is for evacuees to use cell phones only when they are necessary and then to try and limit the use to texting.

Anything else of note?

Anyone with special needs was taken care of handily and with great compassion. I saw repeated examples of young people surrendering their cots to senior citizens early in the evening. In a fire-hardened nutshell, I saw several thousand people band together, share resources, pet food, water, and in general watch over each other during a difficult and uncertain time.

A special note of thanks goes to the Calvin Christian School, which was the overflow shelter I was directed to, the staff and students did everything they could to make sure everyone was safe, comfortable, well hydrated and fed. I can't praise the volunteers at the shelter enough.

(Wednesday update: Our "fire blogger" is back home, safe, and filing this Day 2 account.)

(Update2: One picture is worth 335,000 charred acres -- latest from NASA.)

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