On the day the fire first started in Sonoma County, California, Kent Porter was at the top of Fountaingrove Parkway clocking the speed of the wind.
“Area wind readings this morning ramping up out of the NE,” tweeted Porter, a veteran photojournalist at The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa.
Standing there, watching the readings, a sinking feeling settled into Porter’s gut.
Heavy winds this time of year normally don’t lead to good things.
This time, they led to the Kincade Fire.
A few days later, Executive Editor Catherine Barnett woke to a call from a friend, followed by an emergency alert ordering a mandatory evacuation – her first in 35 years. She grabbed her wedding silver, documents, photos and her dog, Lily, while her husband and son worked to wet down their property.
How many times have I had someone write this story, she thought to herself that morning.
“And I’m standing there without a go bag,” she said. “You just don’t think it’s going to happen to you.”
The next morning, veteran breaking news reporter Randi Rossmann took her elderly parents; her husband; her sister; Lily and Willie the dogs; and Buddy the cat to the newsroom and started calling fire chiefs.
Most of the staff were part of a massive and swift evacuation, the largest, Barnett said, in Sonoma County’s history.
Over the next week and a half at the end of this October, that fire swept across nearly 78,000 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It’s now about 85% contained.
In 2017, The Press Democrat won a Pulitzer Prize for its breaking news coverage of the Tubbs Fire. But it’s the work that’s come since then that Barnett thinks mattered this time.
“I really was heartened to see that as bad as this disaster was, it was handled so differently, and part of that, I believe, was due to our accountability reporting.”
— Kent Porter (@kentphotos) October 28, 2019
In The Press Democrat’s 162 years, a lot has changed. Unlike the stories of many local papers, though, The Press Democrat’s isn’t one of consolidation and contraction.
In 1985, the family-owned paper was sold to The New York Times Company.
In the beginning of 2012, it was sold to Halifax Media Holdings.
That November, a group of local investors bought the paper and restored local ownership.
In 2018, staff won a Pulitzer “for lucid and tenacious coverage of historic wildfires that ravaged the city of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, expertly utilizing an array of tools, including photography, video and social media platforms, to bring clarity to its readers — in real time and in subsequent in-depth reporting.”
That fire raged for 20 days, killed 24 people and destroyed 5,300 homes.
In May of 2018, Barnett told Poynter that staff had turned to accountability reporting to figure out what went wrong.
“This is going to change our community in ways we don’t even understand,” she said then.
The stories The Press Democrat has told since then include questioning why people weren’t alerted to the danger in 2017, why forecasts weren’t heeded in advance, what the evacuation strategy was and what happened to the most vulnerable.
That coverage led to some heated editorial board meetings with county officials, Barnett said, who questioned how the paper could second-guess what happened so soon after people died.
“But they have taken the charge seriously,” she said. “The whole state is so much more attuned now because of what happened to us before.”
Porter said he thinks a combination of factors helped the county better protect people this time and helped people better protect themselves. When the Kincade Fire hit, there were few other fires to focus resources on, unlike two years ago. The community put pressure on elected officials, he said. And the Press Democrat’s coverage of the Tubbs Fire and what’s happened since never let up.
“I think as a newspaper, I think we have really raised the bar not only in coverage, but in how the public perceives what we do for a living,” he said.
Rossmann, the veteran breaking news reporter, said the fires two years ago were horrendous, and covering them was the hardest work the newsroom has ever done.
She said she thinks some of the changes that followed were inevitable, but “we kept putting it out there and the officials had to keep addressing what they were doing about it and what was changing… We definitely kept a spotlight on it.”
In his 33 years at the Press Democrat, Porter has learned that each fire is a little different. What’s changed in the last few years, he said, is reporters and photographers have had to learn to be attuned to both the weather and climate change.
“We’ve had to change how we look at news gathering and shape it to what our weather’s doing,” he said.
The Press Democrat is also a different newsroom than it was two years ago. Some veteran reporters have retired or moved to new jobs. New young reporters have stepped in.
This time, the two worked together to cover the story, Barnett said.
That story – the fire, mass evacuation and power outages – was one that changed moment to moment, Barnett said, and staff worked to keep the community up to date. The Press Democrat also took down its paywall, and its evacuation maps loaded faster than PG&E’s and the county’s, Barnett said.
Sonoma County has a population of nearly 500,000. The Press Democrat has about 60 people in the newsroom.
“We acted like a big newspaper,” she said. “We’re not staffed like The New York Times, and yet we took seriously the charge of 24-hour-information.”
They also acted like a small newspaper, she said: They know their community. They’re connected to it. And people need those kinds of stories, too.