Boulder Fourmile Canyon fire: Will frustrated public be excluded from press briefings?

Peter Richards has been attending Boulder County Justice Center press briefings about the Fourmile Canyon fire, and he says members of the public have been asking around 20 percent of the questions at such sessions. So he was bothered by the move of the briefings to the currently closed Boulder Reservoir -- and even more upset when he read in today's Boulder Daily Camera that the public would be excluded from future chats. But will they be?

At the very least, there appear to be some mixed messages on this subject, with Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle on the no-public-allowed side of the fence and spokesperson Lynn Barclay, an interagency public-information officer normally assigned to the Bureau of Land Management, saying precisely the opposite.

Here's the key excerpt from the Daily Camera article linked above:

Dozens of residents have also been showing up at news conferences, trying to discover any insight into the condition of their homes.

But Pelle said Wednesday that the public would no longer be allowed to attend the news updates because the site for the conferences has been moved to a firefighter staging area at the Boulder Reservoir.

Pelle said the move is designed to get information to reporters more quickly, and that having the public in the area isn't manageable.

A number of residents who spoke to the Camera were critical of this edict, and so is Richards. In his view, members of the public who attended the press conferences "asked very short, concise questions, not these long-winded ones you get on campus all the time." And he says press corps representatives with whom he's spoken said they got as much information from regular folks at the briefings as they did from officials. He sees the switch as a way for the federal agencies now in charge of fighting the fire to control, and potentially limit, information.

Not so, responds Barclay. She says the decision to shift the press briefings to the reservoir was more about logistics than anything else.

"We're trying to serve numerous masters here," she points out. "We want the broadest dissemination of information we can get outside of our websites. And so moving the press briefings closer to ICP" -- the incident command post -- "will make some of the operational folks and other team members more available for interviews, and better able to give firsthand information."

The goal "certainly was not to keep the public away," she continues. "The public is who we're here to serve, as well as our internal firefighters. That's why we had a public meeting last night."

That get-together, at the Coors Event Center on the CU-Boulder campus, drew a crowd Barclay estimates at nearly 2,000. According to Richards, who attended a portion of the assembly, the overall mood of the people with whom he spoke was "frustration" at the slow dissemination of information. He also considered the decision to answer only written inquiries, as opposed to letting people step up to a microphone and directly ask questions of officials like Pelle, to be another example of authorities trying to exert control over the situation.

Barclay doesn't see it that way.

"With a crowd of that size, you have the likelihood of people asking similar questions," she notes. "And because there was a lot of information to share with the public, they felt it would be most efficient to get people's questions recorded and try to group them, so we could address similar issues at one time. It's not that they didn't want to answer everybody's question. But it was a fairly long meeting, and they were just trying to do everything in an efficient manner."

As for the frustration Richards perceived, Barclay understands it -- but she also saw an appreciation from the crowd for the efforts of officials on their behalf. For instance, she says attendees applauded Pelle when he informed them that residents of the Boulder Heights, Carriage Hill and Pine Brook Hill subdivisions were told they could return to their homes after 10 a.m. this morning.

Such folks may not be as receptive if they're prevented from attending Boulder Reservoir press briefings...

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts