How Jonathan Green became a Facebook star Explaining the River Fire to a nervous audience

Jonathan Green outside Toro Park, base camp for the River Fire | Royal Calkins

By Royal Calkins

As horrible as the fires have been in and around our glorious Central Coast, they could have been so much worse but for the heroes on the fire lines, the men and women who worked themselves to exhaustion in the midst of hellish danger to help save the lives and homes of people they will never meet. And, of course, bouquets are owed to the tireless people who backed them up with food, direction and various forms of maintenance. We’ll never be able to thank them enough.

And, just so you know, there has been another shining star in our midst. He hasn’t put his life on the line but has been performing an exceptionally valuable service for many nervous residents affected by the River Fire. That’s the one that burned itself through forest and grasslands from Highway 68 south to well past where River road veers away from the Salinas River and into the Salinas Valley, and that continues to burn.

He is Jonathan Green, whose day job is vice principal of North Salinas High School and whose fire emergency job has been to analyze the fire’s behavior, the actions of the fire crews, shifts in the weather and other factors and to present periodic Facebook-based summaries of what happened in the preceding hours and what is likely happen in the coming day or night.

When you are evacuated from your precious home, when the air can choke you and you are worried to tears about friends and neighbors, information is a hot but elusive commodity. Fire officials unfamiliar to us give briefings morning and night that are carried on the internet and sometimes on TV, but they speak in broad strokes. There are lots of numbers. Acres burned, starting in the hundreds of acres and growing into the thousands and tens of thousands. Numbers of fire crews involved. Gallons of water and fire retardant dropped from the angelic helicopters and tankers. But there is almost always frustratingly little about what the fire has done and what it might do, what direction it is going and how likely or unlikely is it that the fire will roar down my street and turn most of my possessions into ash.

And that is where Jonathan Green has come in, becoming the calm voice capable of taking tons of technical information, satellite images, computer graphics, weather forecasts, topographical maps and turning into useful information. In dozens or hundreds or more homes in San Benancio Canyon and Corral de Tierra, in Indian Springs and PIne Canyon, Arroyo Seco and Las Palmas, Green has been required reading throughout the duration of the River Fire, which only now seems to be starting its slow fade into extinction.

Some samples of his work are coming up, but first a selection of the responses taken from the members-only San Benancio Canyon Neighbor Forum on Facebook.

DeeDee Nucci: “We are so blessed to have your thorough description of what’s been happening. Thank you for keeping us sane.”

Vicky Duke: “Jonathan Green, your reports and information are so spot on. As we and our animals try to figure out what to expect, we are so comfortable with your reports.”

Shawn O’Millerick: “Thank you, Jonathan. Your reports are so helpful to us all.”

Amy Cornelsen: “Thank you for sharing your summary. You take away a lot of panic that is floating around.”

Tina Schardt Harder: “I feel a little better now. Thank you.”

Megan Boles: “This is literally better than Cal Fire updates.”

Lynne Thayer: “Around our house, we are constantly asking each other ‘any word from Jonathan?’”

Residents can find all of Green’s reports on the Facebook site but here’s a sample from Sunday night when the big worry was potential “dry lightning” strikes that could start new fires. If all you knew was what you had heard from a Cal Fire briefing or the TV news, you might think Northern California as we know it was a thing of the past.

Here’s the opening of Green’s informative and calming take:

Good Sunday evening everyone. While I know everyone probably has lightning on their mind, let’s start with some really good news hot off the press from the (kinda rough to watch) CalFire evening briefing: the total acreage of the River fire did not enlarge at all, staying at 48,424 acres and increasing to 20% containment, while the Carmel did the same, rising to 15% containment. Winds did not pick up much and the tropical humidity now in our local area (you can probably feel it) made a big difference, giving firefighters another solid day to add containment lines.

So what about tonight, the ‘main event’ as the NWS (National Weather Service) has called it? Lightning is very much possible, as are dangerous outflow winds from isolated storm cells as they move their way through our region. Lightning has the ostensible potential to spark new fires and outflow winds can aggravate existing burns or rekindle ones that had begun to smolder and settle. But, take a look at the first two images I’ve attached. The first is a map of lightning strikes from last Saturday night and the second is the radar loop of the same timeframe. As you can see, this really was a rare form of storm to hit the central coast of California in the summer. Somewhere around 10,000 strikes were reported, depending on how large you define the region, associated with some strong storm cells.

This evening, as of 7:45pm, no lightning strikes have been reported in our area and as you can see in the third image (radar loop from the past hour), the overall energy of this storm is much lower. That isn’t to say that lightning strikes are not possible, they very much are – but this isn’t nearly the same level of lightning event that started this whole mess. All we can do tonight is hope any lightning strikes stay offshore or don’t occur at all. A lightning strike in an existing fire area or a completely new woodland area would be a major step backward, the same with any wind events in the current burn areas. The odds are in our favor tonight, but we’re still throwing the dice and hoping we don’t roll a 7.

Green, of course, turned out to be right. He isn’t handicapped the way Cal Fire is with the need to be extremely cautious or the way TV news is with its need to hype everything. He aims for the middle course, the most realistic, and his reports over the past week have been, as many of his fans have written, spot on.

So who is this guy? A former firefighter and part-time meteorologist with degrees in journalism and engineering? Not even close. He is a 33-year-old father of two with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from a small Ohio liberal arts college and a master’s degree in the teaching of Spanish from Stanford. Not incidentally, he also lives in the fire zone, on Weather Rock Way, which sits above my Harper Canyon home in San Benancio Canyon not far from Toro Regional Park. His neighborhood was one of the first to be evacuated on Wednesday and, thanks to so many, one of the first to be repopulated Monday.

That, of course, gave him a personal stake in paying close attention to every aspect of this supernatural disaster from Prunedale, where he and his family were safely ensconced in a friend’s home. But why did he produce such well-written, informative and often reassuring posts and how was he able to do it? In an interview shortly after both of us returned to our homes, I dragged it out of him. He’s a confident young man but not a boastful one, so I found myself almost putting words into his mouth at times.

He said he had quickly become frustrated with the official Cal Fire briefings. They featured four or five fire officials providing dry details of various aspects of the fire fight and Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal explaining his department’s role in telling people it was time to exit their comfortable neighborhoods. The briefings were significantly better than nothing but they were neither inspiring or comforting.

“The information was there,” said Green, “but not in a very useful way.”

“They said they’d take questions but most of the time they’d answer like three of them.”

Others expressed similar frustrations with the briefings, acknowledging that actually fighting the fires left fire officials with little time or energy to talk about it but wondering what kept them from answering 10 questions or 20 or more or breaking down their daily predictions into neighborhoods.

Green says it didn’t take long before he realized he could help out by jumping into the vacuum.

Before becoming an administrator at North Salinas High, Green taught Spanish for several years at Seaside High School and worked as an education technology coordinator for the Monterey County Office of Education. In all of those jobs, a key responsibility was the imparting of complicated information to others. He says he applied those skills to understanding the fire.

“I was glued to the Twitter feed but I was frustrated,” he said. So he spent hours a day looking at all the information he could access from his computer. The fire maps, briefing reports, social media posts, satellite imagery posted by officials and hobbyists, weather reports and analyses and photographs, many of them posted by brave or foolish residents who hiked to the various peaks to document the fire and its path.

“I got it all from official sources,” he said, though he went on to mention that he had several assists from other curious but unofficial types.

“If you wanted to know what was going on in the street at Las Palmas II (a development overlooking the Salinas Valley), somebody had to take a picture,” he explained.

Green said his father, an Ohio health care lawyer, was something of an amateur meteorologist and he passed on some of what he knew but he had no formal schooling on the subject. Green is a licensed pilot, flying single-engine aircraft that he refers to as “the Honda Civics of the air,” so he has had to learn a fair amount about wind and downdrafts but he doesn’t consider himself a weather forecaster.

He said he picked up his writing skills by attending very good schools. I suggested he must have picked up more than his share of confidence along the way in order to write with authority about difficult subjects. That elicited a simple nod and a mention of his high school athletic career, which included basketball, baseball and soccer.

“I have always liked to pay close attention to absolutely everything around me,” he said. “You build up your knowledge base … until you are confident in your ability to self teach.” He said he had taught himself to build computers and tackle other complex skills.

“I’m comfortable about my ability to learn, digest and communicate information,” he said in his typically understated manner.

By the way, his wife, Denise, is a mathematics administrator for the county Office of Education and they have two lovely children, daughter Joy, age 2, and 2-month-old Jay, born exactly two years apart.

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Royal Calkins

About Royal Calkins

Contributing writer Royal Calkins has worked for newspapers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Fresno. For the past couple of years, he has produced a local news and commentary blog, the Monterey Bay Partisan. He can be reached at calkinsroyal@gmail.com.

3 thoughts on “How Jonathan Green became a Facebook star Explaining the River Fire to a nervous audience

  1. Such an interesting article for one who lives in Michigan. He is a wonderful, intelligent and caring young man. I love him cause he is my step grandson.

  2. I was wrong. My guess after following Jonathan during the fires was that he was a Naval Post Graduate instructor in weather or engineering principles. Thank you for highlighting this outstanding contribution to the welfare of all of the local River Fire neighbors.

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