What journalists miss when covering the California fires

(AP Photo/ Christian Monterrosa)

Early this week, in west Los Angeles, a branch broke off a eucalyptus tree and sparked what soon became known as the Getty fire, forcing thousands to evacuate their homes. On Monday, national outlets fixated on one victim in particular—LeBron James, the NBA star—whose search for refuge was documented in stories by the Associated Press, the Guardian, the New York Times, The Weather Channel, and more. Other celebrities—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ryan Phillippe, Senator Kamala Harris, Kate Beckinsale, and Kate Beckinsale’s epileptic cat—eventually received coverage, too.

To be fair, the fire is blazing through Brentwood, which is one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. It makes sense to cover the residents affected. But let’s be real: we discuss celebrities and show pyro-pornography to capture attention. That’s not the worst thing for a news organization hoping to highlight a crisis, though journalists could also use the borrowed interest to discuss bigger environmental consequences impacting people inside (and sometimes outside) of California.

ICYMI: A NYT op-ed with an enticing headline, and a questionable writer

As CJR has written recently, climate change is a topic often neglected in coverage of wildfires. Here are a few other points being overlooked:

  • Fire Regime: A fire regime is to fire what climate is to weather; it is how our environment and our bodies adapt to changes and patterns in wildfires. Stephen Pyne, a wildfire historian, says that even if journalists may not be able to cover all of the changes in the behavior of fires, they could do more to describe how a local fire regime is shifting. “We’re creating the fire equivalent of an ice age,” Pyne says. “We’re creating a kind of pyrocene.”  
  • Air Quality: Chris Chavez, Deputy Policy Director for the Coalition for Clean Air, an environmental group, says, “When people think of air, because you can’t see the pollution, they don’t necessarily think of it as a top issue. But it is very important because it affects all of our health.” During wildfires, chemicals are released into the air. “The particles that are basically burnt combustive material are breathed deeply into the lungs,” he explains. “If you breathe them in, they can cause inflammation, asthma, and other respiratory problems. And over time, depending on the composition of the chemicals and the irritation, that could lead to greater health problems, like cancer.”
  • First responders: In America, more police officers and firefighters die by suicide each year than in the line of duty. But as fires become more frequent there is a risk that more lives will be lost, given the emotional toll of repeatedly witnessing such traumatic events. Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, says that even though fires are always in the news, people don’t understand all the tragedy emergency workers face. “What do we do when we are not fighting fires? We’re working at our day jobs dealing with traffic accidents and giving medical aid,” McLean says. “We see an awful lot of things that the public doesn’t see, whether they be gruesome, or heart-wrenching, when someone dies.” He adds, “Then you go to the wildfires, and they’re so violent and severe, and our folks are out there at weeks on end.”
  • Incarcerated firefighters: Don’t forget that California uses inmates to fight back its blazes. Around 2,150 incarcerated people are authorized to fight fires under the state’s Conservation Camp program, which was created by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to give inmates a chance to work, according to KXTV, the ABC-affiliate in Sacramento. Inmate-firefighters earn between $2.90 and $5.12 per day. Quoting the CDCR, KXTV reported that the state receives three million hours of help with disaster response from inmates, and saves taxpayers about $100 million. Kath Rogers, an attorney and executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, says the story of “volunteer” firefighters battling California wildfires is underreported. “Hopefully bringing more attention to this issue will highlight the exploitative conditions these workers are forced to endure,” she says. “Firefighters in prison are risking their lives battling California wildfires, yet they are paid a pittance.”
  • Vulnerability of Communities of Color: A 2018 study found that in California, “many individuals in rural areas, low-income neighborhoods, and immigrant communities do not have access to the resources necessary to pay for insurance, rebuilding, or continual investment in fire safety.” Air pollution, exacerbated by fire, adds to those difficulties, which Chavez says remain under-reported. “Polluting infrastructure and facilities were often clustered around these communities, and the cost of living often forces these communities (which have less intergenerational wealth) to stay near these pollution sources,” he explains. “Similarly, these communities tend to have poorer health as they often have less access to healthcare providers.”
  • Government Response: Neither the Federal Emergency Management Agency, nor its overseer, the Department of Homeland Security, have permanent leaders. Both departments are mandated to respond to disasters like wildfires. President Donald Trump has not yet addressed the fires (though he did find time to congratulate the Washington Nationals for winning the World Series).

This is by no means a comprehensive list. But it is important that, as journalists continue to follow developments from California, they remember: fires have wide-reaching impacts, and coverage of them should be just as diverse. 

ICYMI: When New York Times reporting is weaponized

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Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.