A haunted staff covers the ‘unimaginable,’ months after a giant fire ravaged its community

November 16, 2018

Insight and revulsion over California’s worst fire; Facebook fallout; LION expansion

Local reporters who covered the massive Carr Fire in their northern California county last summer have found themselves on the scene of something much worse in the county to its south — the Camp Fire that has claimed at least 71 lives, with 1,011 people still missing and tens of thousands homeless. Nearly 12,000 structures have been burned.

“I think everybody knew it would happen again,” Silas Lyons, executive editor of the Redding Record Searchlight newspaper, told me. But the scale and death toll has been “unimaginable,” he said, even to those who narrowly escaped death in July and August.

“What most of us didn’t allow ourselves to think about was the worst-case scenario,” Lyons said. “Frankly, a lot of us, even from a coverage perspective, choose not to revisit it, because we were already traumatized.”

Why wasn’t the Carr disaster, a “fire tornado” that ripped through 229,000 acres in July and August, the worst-case scenario? Lyons said the Carr blaze stopped advancing just before a line of cars trying to escape it. “There were hundreds of people in those cars,” said Lyons.

The Camp Fire, terrifyingly, did not stop.

Lyons and several of his reporters evacuated last summer, and bring insight to the coverage. For one reporter, returning from the Camp Fire, it was too much. The reporter told Lyons: “I need to take some time. Don’t send me back there.”

Redding editor
Silas Lyons

Solutions suggested after the Camp Fire have been proposed for at least a decade, but have been thwarted from a lack of compromise between logging and environmental groups, Republicans and Democrats, he said. Lyons’ nine-member Redding team, supplemented by USA Today Network journalists from Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Louisiana, wants to identify obstructionists to long-term solutions and has exposed that power companies will pass along additional costs to the consumer.

Right now, however, Lyons’ staff members are focused on what needs to be done to make their communities safe as soon as possible. He credited David Little, editor of the Chico Enterprise-Record and Oroville Mercury-Register, with focusing on the lists of the missing and making sure that rival news sites got them to help check them off.

Lyons learned during the Carr Fire that even a small staff, reporting out a crisis, “can do more than you think you can.” He said he kept thinking: “‘I don’t know how long we can sustain this,’ and the people just came back the next day and kept doing it.”

Lyons said he can’t stop thinking about the masses of people left homeless from the Camp Fire. “We’re seeing a developing humanitarian crisis …  frail, elderly, poor people heading into winter, getting cold. There are tens of thousands of displaced people who are right now living in (places like) a Walmart parking lot, and that’s not sustainable.”

Lyons, who has lived in northern California most of his life, understands the desire to rebuild, even in a place like Paradise, high on a ridge, with canyons and flammable trees around it.

“One of the things that survived in Paradise was the cemetery. One woman said, ‘I don’t how I’m going to rebuild but my people are out there.'”

Related:

— Amid the unending tragedy of the Camp Fire, the Sacramento Bee’s Ryan Sabalow managed one cheerful reunion. Here’s his story.

— How do you distribute a paper to a town that doesn’t exist anymore? You take it to evacuation centers. By the LAT’s Ben Oreskes.

Quick hits

LION EXPANDS: Directors of the Local Independent Online News organization have voted to open up its membership significantly in an effort to encourage local news nationwide. LION publishers will be accepting members from legacy independent ethnic publishers now embracing digital distribution; university-based and other student-run publications; niche topical publishers; and public media organizations covering local news. The organization also chose Kelly Gilfillan of Tennessee’s FW Publishers and Home Page Media Group as its new board chair.

FACEBOOK CUTS TIES: The social media giant says it has ended a contract with a GOP consulting group that sought to tarnish Facebook opponents. The involvement was disclosed in a blockbuster NYT piece on Facebook. FB contended it had not hidden its contract with Definers Public Affairs and had not asked the group to spread false information about its opponents. Definers sought to link Facebook critics to George Soros and got a group to accuse the critics of anti-Semitism, the NYT reported.

BOUNCED: Crooked Media says it has stopped working with  a contributor implicated in the NYT story on Facebook. The media group said it was conducting its own investigation of Tim Miller, a Definers official and former spokesman for Jeb Bush. “We need to get to the bottom of Tim’s involvement in this work, and he won’t be contributing to Crooked more in the meantime,” Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor, three of the hosts of the podcast, said in a statement.

LOBBYING WATCH: Cannabis companies are outspending marijuana advocacy organizations on lobbying. Cannabis Wire’s Nushin Rashidian looks at what that means for criminal justice and rehabilitation priorities in Congress. Related: Covering the cannabis revolution responsibly.

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: News organizations, don’t just write more stories. Look to the people who care deeply about local news for insight on how to build demand for such reporting, writes Northeastern’s Dan Kennedy.

THE READ: He wanted a motorcycle. That’s why the 14-year-old boy went into the mountains of Yemen; he’d heard al-Qaida was giving them away. His father raced to save him from the terror group and also from a U.S. drone missile attack. By the AP’s Maggie Michael and Maad al-Zikry.

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