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When CJ Boyer tweets, Santa Barbara pays attention

May 11, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

What are we to make of Twitter?

Just about anything we want.

A blizzard of tweets on the micro-blogging website from Saturday night's celebrity-crowded White House Correspondents Dinner showered us with froth, frou-frou and photos. An audience of hundreds of thousands, or more, had access to the treacly tweets.

From the far coast, meanwhile, an amateur Twitter reporter (Tweeporter?) with a firefighting background and a ready laptop captured the imagination of small but passionate group of Santa Barbarans with hundreds of timely bulletins on the wide-ranging Jesusita fire.

Twitter may one day go the way of Friendster or the eight-track tape, but right now plenty of people are finding enough fun or utility in the short reports -- 140 characters each -- to keep on.

It seems you can consume only so many of these little morsels before you crave something more substantial -- toss me a magazine or a cereal box. But that doesn't mean they can't be one course in the full banquet.

I found CJamz on Twitter thanks to colleagues at The Times who have been reporting on the big Santa Barbara fire.

CJamz goes by Clayton "CJ" Boyer in his other life, living in the Santa Ynez Valley and working in a hospital emergency room and driving an ambulance. Before that, he worked as a firefighter for several years along the Central Coast for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

When fire broke out last week in the mountains above Santa Barbara, Boyer found himself on restricted duty because of a ruptured Achilles tendon that would have kept a lot of guys confined to home.

But he's an adrenaline junky and inveterate volunteer (who also had been amusing himself in recent months by posting tweets on the weather and other happenings near his home), so he decided he might be useful delivering updates on the fire.

With a bit of chutzpah and full firefighter's gear, he made his way past roadblocks to the front lines of the fire, to evacuation centers and to briefings. With many friends still in the fire service, he tended to get updates before professional journalists.

Over roughly a week, he posted over 800 of the micro updates -- focusing on evacuations, containment levels, road closures and the deployment of firefighters and equipment. At times after a briefing he would file as many as a dozen straight 140-character bursts to, say, complete a list of evacuation areas.

Those following CJamz (his handle comes from a nickname a buddy gave him a few years back) learned Sunday morning that many mandatory evacuation areas had been reopened. They got an estimate of the cost of fire suppression, $7.4 million.

The 37-year-old even knocked down a report of a possible new fire in the hills, saying it had been labeled a false alarm. The night before he had put out the authorities' call (and a phone number) for any information about suspicious activity at the fire's origin point.

He also answered followers with specific questions, like the wife who wanted to know if her "hubby" would be safe at the San Marcos Golf Course.

"It's like he has been on call the entire fire," said Stephanie Noel Kirlin, a Santa Barbara fundraiser and social activist. He has accurate information, and I would find he would get the news about an hour and a half before anyone else."

While she finds a lot of other Twitter posts narcissistic ("Going for a caramel macchiato now!"), Noel Kirlin called Boyer's posts "real valuable."

Although CJamz's cadre of 271 followers pales in comparison to actor Ashton Kutcher's army of more than 1 million, the rookie tweeporter has seen his work magnified as it's "re-tweeted" by The Times and others and used to augment their own reporting.

Reporters used information from tweeters like Boyer to, for example, update late-night changes in wind conditions or in the advance of fog.

Twitter has been celebrated before for its immediacy. The earliest picture of the U.S. Airways flight downed in the Hudson River in New York came from a ferry passenger who posted a camera-phone photo on the site.

Some veteran journalists said the platform had given them an additional tool for staying in touch with their audiences and with new sources of information.

"I have this growing conversation with people, and they have given us a bunch of stories. They're from a different demographic, many of them younger," said Nita Lelyveld, a Times assignment editor who re-posted Boyer's tweets on her latimescitydesk Twitter account.

"I think at a micro level you can change people's opinions about who we are and how engaged we are."

While expressing sympathy for those who suffered in the fire, Boyer called it a "blessing in a personal sense in that I have been able to do what I love, which is to get out and help others, to try to make a difference in the big picture."

He said he admires the reporters he's been working with on the fire, though he's not ready to join their ranks.

But he said he might start looking for part-time work as a public information officer, someone who could make instant Internet updates a regular part of the next crisis in the community.

"It's the adrenaline rush," CJamz said. "I love the ever-changing excitement. And, bottom line, it can help other people."


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