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Jeff Aiello Fights Fire With Information

OAKHURST — Jeff Aiello, creator of the Talk of the Hill Facebook group and page, along with his wife, Jill, saw a need and met it.

Jeff Aiello, CEO of Valley PBS and creator of Talk of the Hill Facebook group.

A lifelong resident of the Oakhurst/Bass Lake area, he is also a television producer, cinematographer and broadcast executive with an intimate knowledge of the Sierra Nevada. including many contacts in media and government agencies. Currently the chief executive officer of Valley PBS, his extensive contacts give him a unique perspective to address the questions and concerns which inundated his personal Facebook page beginning with the Creek Fire.

Labor Day Weekend in the western Sierra Nevada was one for the books, and not in a good way. At approximately 6:30 p.m., the Creek Fire broke out in the Shaver Lake area and exploded in size, moved swiftly through that area and traveled to the Mammoth Pool area, where it trapped some 200 individuals and dogs who had to be airlifted from the spot.

That was just the beginning.

Ultimately, the fire consumed 379,895 acres throughout the areas of Big Creek, Huntington Lake, Shaver Lake, Mammoth Pool and San Joaquin River Canyon and was not declared contained until December 24, 2020. The flames spread rapidly through drought-affected countryside. Destroyed were 853 structures, with 64 structures damaged. Twenty-nine firefighters suffered injuries during the blaze.

As a local resident affected by the fire, Jeff began giving updates on his personal page. He says, “I really didn’t know of any ‘fire and emergency’ groups at the time.  We were just doing our Creek Fire updates live and more and more people were tuning in. In the early days of the fire, we were regularly having 2,000 – 2,500 watching our update live. We added the (Talk of the Hill) group to help people with Creek Fire information they couldn’t get anywhere else.”

Jeff’s mission has always been to obtain the most reliable, accurate and up-to-the-minute information on fires in the areas they cover.  Jeff says, “Information, during something as stressful as a wildfire, is comfort. That’s what we try to provide our community.”

The group grew exponentially as word-of-mouth led new members to the site. Established in October 2020, the group added some 7,000 members in the early months, with new subscribers added as fires occurred in other areas, and people from those regions found their way to Talk of the Hill. They reported extensively on the Caldor fire and the Tahoe area. The group now includes members from those areas, as well, numbering close to 9,000. Most subscribers to Jeff’s Talk of the Hill page are locals who have been directly affected by the fires; however other subscribers join because they have family in the area and want to keep informed.

A large component of Jeff’s appeal is that the high-level sources from which he obtains information trust him and how he uses the information they give him. They reveal “inside information” with the knowledge that he uses it responsibly. His readers have come to realize they can also trust what he posts to have been vetted prior to posting. He also has extensive knowledge of maps and the location of places described in media releases, which gives him an edge on quick reporting.

Another part of Jeff’s “mission” is to teach what publicly available resources can be accessed by followers and how to use them. That empowers his followers to research info on their own and add to the content of Talk of the Hill.

Jeff & Jill Aiello, creators of the Talk of the Hill Facebook group and Talk of the Hill Facebook page.

Jeff and Jill administer the page themselves, along with a team-up with Jenna Boozer Yip and her Jenna’s Workshop” website, as well as Jenna’s Facebook page. Jeff says Jenna has been invaluable in taking all their sources and combining them into one easy-to-use format.

In the first month of the Creek Fire, Jeff and Jill spent a minimum of three to four hours per day gathering information and posting to their pages. They even posted updates from the field during a sailing vacation. Jeff states, “it’s easy to do when it’s a passion project like this is for us.” He further says that for both Jill and Jeff their ultimate payoff is to hear from someone that they’ve given comfort or eased anxiety through their reporting, along with helping the community learn to use available resources. “To know that we helped our community get through a very rough time while teaching people to access this information on their own, feels really good.”

The major challenge for Jeff and Jill is to keep negativity, speculation and politicized posts off the sites. Because forest management and climate change are hot-button topics currently, intimately related with the fire activity in forests throughout the west, it can be difficult. Jeff agrees that there needs to be opportunity for discussion but personally hates to see name-calling and disrespect for those who espouse different perspectives.

Asked what he sees as the future of Talk of the Hill, Jeff says, “Ultimately the TOTH group has really two aspects I’d like to continue to see grow. First, the obvious information stream we provide during fires with live, late-breaking updates, including updates and info from our community. This is a crowd-sourcing way of sharing info in times of need. Second, the discussions on fire, forest management, climate change, and fuel loading issues are really important and constructing in how we all understand what can be done to limit the size of these mega-fires we’re seeing today.”

Jeff has produced a two-hour documentary, called Afterburn, scheduled to air on Valley PBS, Facebook and YouTube, premiers on September 30, 2021. A preview screening takes place on Tuesday, September 28, while a “teaser” is available here.  Check out this episode of Outside Beyond the Lens, as well.

Photos courtesy of Jeff Aiello and Sierra News Online.

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