‘As scary as it is, that’s our job’: Prepping journalists for California’s next wildfire

San Francisco Chronicle reporter Lizzie Johnson in Santa Rosa. Photo: Santiago Mejia/San Francisco Chronicle

Lizzie Johnson, a reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle, drove into Paradise, California, early in the afternoon of November 8. The Camp Fire had spread to the area a few hours earlier. At the southwest edge of town, where the main road to Paradise turns into  a four-lane road, she encountered a police officer manning a roadblock at that spot.

“He told me, ‘This is an evacuation area. If you go back there, it’s not our responsibility to save you,’” Johnson says.

California law doesn’t allow authorities to keep journalists out of disaster areas, so all the officer could do was warn her. Johnson drove on, over skittering power lines and past trees smoking from their roots. The sky was red, and the smoke was so thick her headlights didn’t do much good. It was, she, says, “otherworldly…like driving into the apocalypse.”

Johnson had doubted the early reports of the fire’s devastation. How could an entire town burn? But as soon as she passed that roadblock, it was clear that Paradise was all but gone.

A former San Francisco City Hall reporter, Johnson has written about little but wildfires since she moved to the metro desk in 2017, though that wasn’t anyone’s plan when she joined the desk. She now identifies herself (at least in her Twitter bio) as “The Fire Girl,” and she keeps a stack of books on fire behavior at her bedside.

It’s a beat that didn’t exist at the Chronicle before she had it. Until recently, the Chronicle would throw everyone they had at a big wildfire, and then forget about fires until the next one started. Now, the paper covers the subject year-round, with breaking-news coverage, investigative reporting about fire preparation and response, and in-depth pieces like Johnson’s December 5 report on the hellish fire tornado that cut through Redding on July 26.

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Wildfires in the West have become more deadly and destructive over the past decade, and covering them has grown more demanding, more dangerous, and more expensive.  I talked to seven editors and news directors from small and large newspapers and a big-market local television station. All of them say the lethal fires of the past two years have made them reevaluate their fire coverage and the steps they take to keep their reporters and photographers safe. Many have invested in new equipment and training.

No journalist in memory has been seriously hurt covering a fire; Scott McLean, the deputy chief for communications for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, says it’s very rare that one has to be rescued, though reporters’ vehicles and television news vans have burned in California in recent years.

Television reporters and photographers frequently find themselves in situations more dangerous than anything they would have encountered five years ago, says Matthew Groeteke, the news operations manager at KTLA in Los Angeles. The big reason is technology: reporters don’t need a live truck to do a live broadcast anymore. With cellular network bonding—a technology that combines several modems for a stronger and more reliable connection—a station can broadcast live with a backpack’s worth of equipment.

“You can now walk right up into a fire, and people will do it, because there’s nothing tethering them back to the live truck,” Groeteke says. “You get caught up in that exhilarating rush to cover the moment, and you’ve got everybody back at the station saying, ‘Oh my God, these are amazing pictures,’ and as a manager, that’s very dangerous.… I think we’ll see more accidents in the future, because of this technology.”

“You get caught up in that exhilarating rush to cover the moment, and you’ve got everybody back at the station saying, ‘Oh my God, these are amazing pictures,’ and as a manager, that’s very dangerous.”

From 2005 to 2010, I was a reporter at the Ventura County Star, a mid-sized daily in suburban southern California. In those five years I covered perhaps a dozen wildfires that between them burned more than 800 square miles of forest and brush. Only three of those fires destroyed more than a handful of homes, and the residents always made it out alive. A wildfire was an excuse to get out of the office all day, not a brush with death.

That changed in 2017. The big wake-up call came in October, when a series of wildfires in Northern California’s wine country destroyed more than 5,000 homes and killed 44 people. Then in December, the Thomas fire in Southern California destroyed 777 homes, most of them in Ventura.

“Ten years ago, there was no way that if one home burned we would not be there,” says Audrey Cooper, the Chronicle’s editor in chief. “Now you have to decide, how many is enough? One home? Five homes? A subdivision? A whole city?”

In 2018, the Carr fire claimed more than 1,000 homes and eight lives in far Northern California; the Ranch fire, the biggest in California’s history, burned more than 400,000 acres in the same region; the Camp fire destroyed 14,000 homes and killed at least 85 people in and around Paradise; and the Woolsey fire burned more than 1,000 homes in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

“We’ve always had destructive fires. . . but the scale of the destruction the last two years [has] been off the charts,” says Shelby Grad, the Los Angeles Times’s assistant managing editor for California and metro coverage. “You’re talking about 30,000 homes, close to 200 people dead. It changes the way you look at them and the way you cover them.”

The Times now does much more investigative work around wildfires than ever before, Grad says, and it has run multiple stories that attempt to explain how climate change has contributed to the recent wave of deadly fires.

Most newspapers and television stations in wildfire country now hold regular training sessions with state or local firefighting agencies. McLean says the demand for media training “grew by leaps and bounds this year.”

A training session lasts two or three hours and covers the basics of fire behavior and how to stay alive on the front lines. The best advice, Johnson says, is to watch the professionals: “If the firefighters are panicking, then it’s absolutely a sign that you’re in a spot where you shouldn’t be.”

Cal Fire training also teaches journalists how to use safety gear, though it’s up to news organizations to buy their own—and it isn’t cheap. Standard gear includes pants, shirts, jackets and gloves made from fire-resistant Nomex, helmets, boots, goggles, masks, two-way radios, and pop-up shelters that can save lives as a last resort. Cooper tweeted last month that the Chronicle recently ordered $24,000 worth of new gear, enough for nine journalists.

“We don’t get our new equipment until January, so I’m still wearing a fire suit that’s built for a medium-sized man, and I’m a very small woman,” Johnson says. “I look ridiculous, and I hope I don’t have to run, because I’d trip on the pant legs.”

The LA Times has at least 20 full sets of fire gear, Grad said. Television stations in LA have even more: Matthew Groeteke, the news operations manager at KTLA, says his station has about 75 Nomex suits—one for each photographer, reporter, and anchor.

Many of the communities threatened by wildfires are small towns, with small news outlets. The Acorn, a chain of weekly newspapers in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, started sending reporters out to fires five years ago, Kyle Jorrey, the editor of the Thousand Oaks Acorn, says. The five-newspaper chain has 10 reporters and two photographers. The photographers have their own sets of fire gear, and the rest of the staff shares three sets.

It was enough when the Woolsey fire hit Thousand Oaks last month, but if there were ever more than one major fire to cover, or a fire that affected the entire coverage area, the Acorn might need all of its reporters in the field. There wouldn’t be enough gear to go around.

“I know our staff, and they’d all want to get out there, but I would never want to see them put themselves in danger,” Jorrey says.

Darrin Peschka, the news director of the Ventura County Star, runs a Gannett newsroom that’s better equipped than the Acorn, but she says it could still use new equipment. A philanthropist or nonprofit organization that wants to help journalists could help by buying fire gear for smaller newsrooms, Peschka says.

“Whenever we’re covering a story like this, I worry about my staff,” she says. “I think what these fires have shown us that you can prepared and still be in trouble. … We’ve taken some steps as far as training and equipment, but the fires we’ve seen lately have been very erratic and very large.”

“I feel like most people don’t have those moments in their lives, where they’re like, ‘I might die if I go past this checkpoint.’” Johnson says. “As scary as it is, that’s our job. We are the eyes for all these people who can’t be back there. That entire town is in evacuation shelters or on the couches of their friends and family, and they don’t know what’s happening to their homes. It’s our responsibility to be there for them, and you can’t do that unless you go back there.”

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Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.