Extinguishing rumors amid the flames

The rumor mill has been in overdrive since the wildfire began

Did you hear about the looting in Cache Creek while it was under evacuation order? No? What about horse-stealing on the Ashcroft First Nation reserve?

You must have heard that, on July 16, members of the RCMP were going door-to-door in Ashcroft, warning that the village was under an evacuation alert, or that residents of Cache Creek could get back in to retrieve things with a police escort, or that we were going to be without internet service for up to eight weeks.

All false.

The rumor mill has been in overdrive since the Ashcroft Reserve/Elephant Hill wildfire began and our newspaper, the Ashcroft-Cache Creek Journal, found itself investigating and quashing rumors as quickly as they came to our attention.

It has been like a particularly grim game of Whack-a-Mole: as soon as one rumor is bopped on the head, another one pops up to take its place.

It is easy to understand how and why rumors get started, particularly during the week when Ashcroft was without phone and internet service, and when residents of Cache Creek were far from home and wondering what was happening.

Nature abhors a vacuum and our region became one massive Dirt Devil.

The Journal is fortunate to have direct access to people who are in positions of authority and know what is going on.

We realize others do not have that same access.

However, it would be a good idea for all — upon hearing such rumors — to take a deep breath and consider the source.

Is the person in a position to know these things in an official capacity, as a first responder, Mountie, local government official or information officer with the BC Wildfire Service? If not, perhaps reach for the salt before accepting what you hear as the gospel truth.

As frustrating as these local rumors are, however, the most pernicious and upsetting piece of false news was the “fact” Ashcroft was under an evacuation order as of July 7 and that residents had either evacuated or were in the process of doing so.

Many media outlets — including Global News, Globe and Mail, CBC and Radio NL in Kamloops — reported this, sometimes for days after the fire broke out.

The result was predictable.

People outside the community saw or heard or read this, tried phoning or getting in touch with loved ones via email or social media and received no answer because power, internet and phone services were out.

The result was confusion, fear and even outright panic as people sought to find out what was happening and where people had gone.

On the evening of July 7, the Journal posted online in numerous places — including the paper’s website — that Ashcroft was under evacuation alert only, but some of the other news media failed to pick up on that fact.

It was at first frustrating, then anger-inducing, to respond to numerous requests from frightened people enquiring about loved ones, knowing the panic could have been avoided if other media outlets had done a little research and fact-checking before filing their stories and reporting something that was simply not true.

It may be cliché, but when hearing rumors — especially at a fraught time when people are on edge — consider the source.

And big news media? Do some basic fact-checking.

The local paper is a good place to start.

– Barbara Roden is editor of the Ashcroft-Cache Creek Journal. She can be reached at editorial@accjournal.ca.