Wildfires have changed California. They’ve changed journalism, too

November 20, 2018 01:30

This article first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Like most California journalists, I remember my first wildfire story. I was barely 22 and had landed a job as a reporter for the Associated Press. An editor barked at me to write a short story about a blaze somewhere far upstate.

A more seasoned reporter saw my look of utter fear. I had no idea what to ask. Get the numbers first, he advised: acres burned, structures threatened (“don’t confuse that with homes!”), number of firefighters, bulldozers and aircraft.

That summer I wrote several such stories, each a formulaic version of the last. None of those blazes was particularly notable; maybe a few outbuildings were destroyed, but nobody died. Everyone knew California burns, California has landslides. That’s how it was.

Five years ago, we might have seen one or two wildfires threatening enough to send a reporter. In the past two years, we have covered several simultaneously. We used to update emergency-response plans every year; now, regrettably, we have become well practiced in the worst-case scenarios.

Instead of sending a single reporter and photographer, we mobilize several, each carrying a fire-resistant suit. This summer we got the OK to purchase $24,000 worth of new safety gear, including personal fire shelters that may save our colleagues’ lives if they find themselves stuck inside a fire that’s about to blow over them.

We already had some gear, but covering today’s wildfires means outfitting more journalists. That includes reporter Lizzie Johnson and photographer Gabrielle Lurie — petite but ass-kicking women who have had to wear men’s sizes. The smaller suits will arrive in January. I thought that would be soon enough. Fire season wasn’t supposed to last this long.

The Camp Fire in Butte County, like the Carr Fire earlier this year near Redding and the Wine Country fires last year, feels uncomfortably personal. To live in our natural paradise, we accept certain risks. An earthquake could destroy your home; a flood could wipe out your neighborhood. Accepting, on top of that, this new reality of unmitigated and unyielding wildfires feels like our pact with California has been changed, even for those of us blessed to escape the direct devastation.

These new fires — so immediately explosive and destructive — have changed what we do in the field as well as in the newsroom.

Today, evacuated residents send pleas via Twitter, begging our reporters on the fire lines to check on their homes or loved ones. If they can, they do.

The complexity of the news decisions we make has grown as well. Four days after an exhausting election night, editors on a seventh straight day of work watched and re-watched a Camp Fire video showing charred skeletons on the ground and behind steering wheels of burned-out cars. For the first time in my career, I fought back the urge to be sick. I’d never seen anything like it over many years of wildfire coverage. In the most frightening and graphic way possible, the video showed how quickly this fire devoured all it encountered. But would acknowledging the video’s existence, much less posting a shorter, less graphic portion of it, be disrespectful to the victims?

There is a perception that journalists simply take from the victims. We do take their stories, their photos. We do these things not because we relish it but because the public must know. There is power in the truth, even if it is a truth some would rather not see. There is also incredible sorrow and empathy, feelings that are often difficult to absorb before you can make sense of it for the public.

Those of us working on the front lines know this better than anyone. Last week Chronicle reporter Evan Sernoffsky took a photo of his colleague, photojournalist Jessica Christian. Jessica, wearing her dirty yellow Nomex protective suit, had put down her cameras to hug an anguished survivor. Some editors might cringe at a journalist inserting herself into a situation instead of recording it. It made me cry. I am so proud of her.
 
We know you want to read about how to help, about the air quality and when it might improve, about who the victims are and where the survivors will go. We embrace our responsibility to ensure we hold to account those who had a role in causing the blaze, as well as the lawmakers who have routinely failed to have significant policy discussions about how to deal with the increasing number of wildland-urban blazes.

But we also share your feelings. How can we help? And when will this be over? What can we expect as the climate continues to change and as development pushes homes closer to the forests?

Some of these questions we can answer. Some we can’t. Usually in our business, that’s a dichotomy we can accept. But as wildfires continue to reshape both the landscape and our understanding of this place we call home, working to find the rest of the answers has become more urgent than ever.
 
Support California journalists:
North State Public Radio based in Chico, CA, has been run ragged covering the Camp Fire, the largest wildfire in California history. We'd love help covering the fire, the aftermath, the human cost, and other stories that need to be told to the listeners in northern California. Contact Phil Wilke, NSPR General Manager, pwilke@csuchico.edu or 530-898-6100.