States of emergency: How California newsrooms are reporting deadly, destructive blazes

November 12, 2018

In the north, it's California's deadliest and most destructive blaze on record, by far. In the south, another gigantic fire is threatening the nation's second-biggest city.

Both blazes have left death in their wake, thousands of homes destroyed and tens of thousands of evacuees. Officials say 228 people are unaccounted for in northern California.

Newsrooms throughout the state, hoping to catch their breath after exhausting elections, found themselves plunged into minute-by-minute public service. In Southern California, the alarms from the Woolsey Fire began ringing as a community mourned the shooting deaths of a dozen people at a college night in a country music bar. 

Northern California

I've asked Audrey Cooper, editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle, how the coverage of the 113,000-acre Camp Fire in Butte County ramped up, went from "whoa" to "Whoa" to "WHOA!" as 6,700-plus structures were destroyed and, by Monday night, at least 42 people confirmed dead.

Here, lightly edited, is her response, via email:

"So we found out about the fire early Thursday morning shortly after it ignited. We had already sent a reporter when our morning news meeting started. … I remember our deputy metro editor said to me as an aside, 'The reporters think this will get bigger than the Carr fire' from earlier this year. Midway through the meeting someone slacked him a message and he showed it to me. I don’t honestly remember what it said but my response was, 'We need more reporters there.'

"A few hours later the town of Paradise was essentially gone.

"My WHOA moment came midday when the metro editor told me there were reports of the fire having formed a circle around residents, trapping them in the fire. Last night I watched a video of someone going back into that general area and there are charred skeletons everywhere — in cars behind the steering wheels, on the ground next to cars. I’ve never seen that before. 

"Covering wildfires was always part of the news summer in California. There would be one, maybe two. … Now NorCal alone keeps us more than busy, and it’s something we have to actively budget for: more Nomex (flame-resistant apparel), more OT, more travel. My capital spending request is at work, but I think we got approved for something like $20,000 in new fire gear — largely to fit the women photographers and reporters who have been wearing men’s sizes. 

"We’ve unfortunately gotten very, very good at this. We know our interactive fire tracker will take off online, we know the 'What we know, what we don’t' sidebars are very useful for people. Air quality sidebars are done from muscle memory. And we know we will meet residents who will be part of our reporting for months and years to come. (Editor's note: How you can help victims of the Camp Fire)

"I would say we have a cohort of reporters and photographers who love to do this work because they see how important it is firsthand to the community. They all will take addresses from readers and use their access to check on houses. It’s important work, but exhausting, and I know it kills them when they can’t get to them all. Last year during the Wine Country fires I remember telling reporters that, yes, it was OK to expense underwear. They were out that long.

"The fact that this happened after a huge election didn’t help. The news staff is pretty depleted. But they are also buoyed by the comments from readers who cheer them on. 

"When this fire broke out we were working on a major narrative interactive about the Carr fire from earlier this year. It was spectacularly devastating for reasons we will be able to explain with some amazing video from inside the fire. My worry in that is readers are getting exhausted, so we need to really push ourselves to find new ways to tell these stories so that nobody becomes inured."

Southern California

The Los Angeles Times had called in reporters at midnight Wednesday when reporters of the Thousand Oaks shooting came in. They pulled an all-nighter early Thursday and much of the day on telling that story. Then what would become the Woolsey Fire took root and spread during strong winds. 

“There are some reporters who didn’t sleep for 37 hours,” Shelby Grad, the LAT's assistant managing editor coordinating coverage, told me.

The fire had consumed more than 91,000 acres and 177 structures north and west of Los Angeles. About 57,000 more structures were threatened. The fire has forced the evacuations of 250,000 people. Two people are confirmed dead. 

The LAT had reporters and editors who didn't know if their homes were destroyed, and one had to be evacuated, Grad said. In one case, a staffer who grew up in Thousand Oaks, Soumya Karlamangla, offered several reporters a place to stay in her childhood home for the vigil. During the night, the alarms and the evacuation order came down, and Karlamangla ended up having to help move her parents and their dog, Cooper, to her place in Los Angeles. On Friday morning, however, another fire threatened the nearby Griffith Park area, and they had to move again, Grad said.

On Friday morning, Times staffers saw from their office the huge clouds from the Woolsey blaze and then, the other fire by the famous Hollywood sign and Griffith Park (that was under control within a day).

Both huge California fires are still threatening, the northern Camp Fire only 25 percent contained and the Woolsey blaze just 20 percent contained, as Santa Ana winds began to blow in. Both fires brought dangerous air quality to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Your morning columnist, staying with family in west LA, witnessed a run on air purifiers and saw mask-wearing residents. 

“We’re in some ways used to it,'' Grad said of the fires, "but this week was particularly trying.”

On Saturday evening, political reporter Michael Finnegan was working on a rewrite of a fire story when he was called to help on another piece — the defeat of longtime GOP member of Congress Dana Rohrabacher in traditionally Republican Orange County.

While covering other stories, the paper has three to four reporters on the northern blaze and up to 25 on the Woolsey blaze, Grad said, and it was buying more air-filter masks. "It takes a toll," he said. 

The LAT will be looking at how the fires were fought and whether they had enough warning, Grad said. "We'll also be looking at the why (of the more numerous and more devastating fires). Global warming is a factor in part of this."

There's an allure of the place, even in flames. KCRW's Jenny Hamel was interviewing a Malibu evacuee when she heard: "I hope my house is OK so I don’t have to rebuild it again."

Again?

Vidya Ghosh, 80, told her she had to rebuild after a Malibu fire a quarter century ago. 

LAT columnist Steve Lopez said that steadfastness, perhaps against logic, is common. "The state is built for disaster, yet we are helpless against its charms," Lopez wrote Sunday. "We cling to the edge of the continent, shaken by loss, too foolish to run, or too much in love."

Quick hits

NYT DIGITIZES THE ‘MORGUE’: "We’ve always known that we were sitting on a trove of historical photos and now, cloud technology allows us to not only preserve this archival source, but easily search and pull photos to provide even more historical context,” said the NYT’s Monica Drake, an assistant managing editor. We’ll have more from our interview with Drake in the next few days, focusing on a century of its coverage of California.

CONSERVATIVE EDITOR TELLS OFF STEVE KING: "(Steve) King claimed our reporter lied. He didn’t. He claimed we didn’t have a recording. We do. He insisted we refused to release the audio. Untrue. The audio makes clear King was quoted accurately. We stand by the story,” Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard on its article about the GOP congressman and white supremacist from Iowa.

FORTUNE’S FUTURE: Fortune will be purchased by a Thai businessman for $150 million, the WSJ reports.

BLACKLIST: Hong Kong is preventing the Asia editor for the Financial Times from entering as a visitor, after previously not letting him work there, the Guardian reports. The moves followed his chairing of an event featuring an advocate of independence for the Beijing-controlled former British colony.

AXIOS: Editor concedes problems with its HBO show and a promotional tone about its “scoop” on Trump and birthright citizenship. By HuffPost’s Ashley Feinberg.

ROBOT ANCHORS: China’s state-run TV debuts robots to deliver the authoritarian government’s “news.” Not just cheaper, but no pesky objections when asked to spin news like 1 million members of a minority ethnic group being placed in gulags. Google and Facebook are banned in the nation, which, as Reuters puts it, tightly controls online content and censors or punishes those who post material seen as opposed to “core socialist values.”

BEYOND THE STORY: How many journalism outlets give lawmakers a proposed 100-page amendment to a law after a story comes out? The Nieman Lab’s Christine Schmidt profiles Civio, a data-driven news site that goes the extra step on government transparency and lowering barriers for journalism.

THREATENING JOURNALISM WORLDWIDE: That may be the effect of the authoritarian Philippine government's press to silence the media with a tax-evasion charge against the popular news site The Rappler and its world-respected founder, Maria Ressa. She called the case  a “clear form of continuing intimidation and harassment” that would chill critical coverage even beyond the nation's borders. On Thursday, Ressa received an award from the International Center for Journalists.

THE READ: A century-old mystery, a single daisy at his grave: Joby Warrick tells the story of his great uncle, a Marine slain in battle nine days before the Armistice, and Warrick's journey through documents and the rows of linden trees in a graveyard in rural France.

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Got a tip or a link? Please email me at dbeard@poynter.org or reach me @dabeard.

Thanks for reading. I'll be back tomorrow.

Correction: An earlier version had an incorrect time for the first reports of the Thousand Oaks shooting.