Technology's pipeline becomes lifeline for fire victims

Technology is proving crucial as Southern California residents fight raging wildfires.

They're using text messages, video, blogs, Google maps and databases to describe the chaos, find missing people and share strategies.

Despite fears of an overload, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon said their cellphone networks were working fairly well. Some cell towers were affected by fire or power outages. But cell companies have learned to re-route network resources during such a crisis, Sprint spokeswoman Kathleen Dunleavy said.

Sprint experienced congestion along highways packed with evacuees and at the huge shelter at Qualcomm Stadium. Verizon's traffic jumped about 38% across Southern California. About 4% of AT&T's network in the San Diego area was down. Calls were generally going through, the companies said.

Meanwhile, residents were deploying other technologies, including:

•Text messaging. Since emergency personnel asked residents to limit cellphone use, Kim Nguyen, 28, an accountant from San Diego, relied on texts to keep track of displaced friends.

The University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and the University of San Diego (USD) used emergency text-message systems to blast updates to students, faculty and others. It was the first time USD used the system, which alerted nearly 10,000 people classes were canceled.

KPBS, a radio and TV station in San Diego, offered frequent fire updates via Twitter, a popular website that blasts information to subscriber's text-message or e-mail accounts.

•Streaming audio and video. USD senior Shelby Holliday, 21, produced two news videos about the fire's impact on fellow students, then posted them on the video-sharing site YouTube.

By Tuesday, YouTube users had posted at least 142 fire videos. Some were news reports that originally aired on CNN. Others were created by users, including one shot from a speeding car showing smoke-filled skies along a highway.

Employees at software developer InfoStreet don't have cable TV at their office about 30 miles west of Los Angeles, so they are watching live news coverage on the website of KNBC, Channel 4, in the company's conference room.

KPBS' radio broadcast signal had problems as the fire drew closer to its transmitter on Mount Miguel. KPBS switched to a different frequency and boosted online streaming capability to allow listeners to tune in over the Internet.

•Blogging. Alexander Fowler in Lancaster, about an hour north of Los Angeles, says his recreational-vehicle owners' club is using its blog to locate RVs for those in need of housing.

In Palm Springs, Thomas Mulhall is using his blog to assure customers that fires aren't affecting his Terra Cotta Inn Clothing Optional Resort. He has posted recent photos of Palm Springs showing blue skies after getting four cancellations and a dozen calls from worried customers.

•Online databases and websites. UCSD encouraged students to register with the American Red Cross' online "Safe and Well" database. Disaster survivors input their names and information into the database, which concerned friends and family can search.

Craigslist, the popular classified adsite, set up a "SoCal fire forum" where people could post messages about the damage. Posts ranged from reports on neighborhoods, offers of assistance and questions about rental insurance.

•Google maps. Search giant Google's online geography tools allowed The San Diego Union-Tribune, Los Angeles Times, ABC 7 (Los Angeles) and others to generate real-time maps of fire-affected areas.