Ventura County Star - October 1, 2006

Ventura County Star

Ojaipost.com became hub for Day fire updates

By Colleen Cason, October 1, 2006

Should I stay or should I go now? That was the burning question for Upper Ojai residents as the big and nasty Day fire burned in the backcountry near their homes for days on end.

Public safety officials had recommended they evacuate as Santa Ana winds drove the flames closer to residential areas. But what sane person would choose to go through the trouble of packing up and then living for days out of suitcases unnecessarily?

Information on how to make the stay-or-go decision became critical. And those rugged individualists who live on the edge of the Sespe Wilderness found their choices limited.

A 20-second TV or radio broadcast or even a newspaper or online story might not give them enough substance to make this life-and-death call. They also discovered the http://www.inciweb.org site that was supposed to feed them official information on the blaze was so overloaded it could not be accessed.

So about the time Clark Kent would have gone into the phone booth to save the day, another quiet hero emerged from the crisis — Tyler Suchman.

Tyler Suchman? I know what you are thinking. Wasn't he a character on the sitcom "Friends"?

His is not exactly a household name, but these days on the Internet, Suchman's profile is high. Google the key words "Ojai fire" and the first four hits are for blogs hosted by Suchman. The fifth is a link to his blogs.

The 35-year-old Internet entrepreneur turned his http://www.Ojaipost.com into a vital information portal for residents hanging on every flareup of the fire.

Before the blaze, the community-news site received a few hundred hits a day, according to Suchman. During the endless days of the Day, the hits soared to more than 4,000 per day.

"It took on a life of its own," he said of the 16-hour days he spent updating his site during the scariest times of the blaze.

If you knew this affable Gen-Xer lived in Ventura County, you'd figure him for an Ojai guy. Maybe it's the ponytail. Maybe it's because he founded a business called Tribal Core, with the mission statement: to provide, among other things, search engine optimization services. Or maybe it's because he likes to talk about community a lot.

Suchman arrived in Ojai a couple of years ago from L.A., where he created ring tones and wallpaper for cell phones.

"That was not the legacy I wanted to have," he said.

Although Suchman's home in the middle of town wasn't immediately threatened by the blaze, he felt people needed information to help them deal with their fears.

"It was snowing ash, and the light was a freaky red. You couldn't ignore the fire," he said.

So for the past two weeks, you could find Suchman hunched over his laptop in his home office while he learned journalism on the fly. His previous media experience consisted of editing his grade-school paper and as a college sportscaster.

He convinced all agencies who were fighting the blaze to e-mail him press releases.

He assigned himself the job of reporting on a standing-room-only community meeting where fire officials briefed Ojai and Santa Paula residents about the blaze.

He then went home and emptied his notebook onto his site.

Word started to travel through town that http://www.Ojaipost.com was the address for timely, accurate fire updates.

Soon, residents became reporters, blogging their observations. And soon enough, he received feedback from relieved residents.

One wrote: "There is another fire in the Ojai Valley: a fire of communities, a hearth fire that brings people together for comfort and support."

Suchman maintains mainstream media (that would be this newspaper, among other outlets) failed residents in the areas threatened by the fire. And several bloggers on his site echoed his sentiment.

I won't debate them or Suchman on that in this space. Let's just say, welcome to the big media tent. There's room for everyone.

That fire officials expect the Day to be completely contained by Monday is good news to Suchman. The hours spent posting fire news kept him away from his business.

And that is really the inspiring thing about him. No one paid him to do this. He saw it as his civic duty and did it. For that alone, Suchman deserved his day in the sun.