Forged in wildfires: Lessons from California student-reporters

The Tubbs Fires hops from house to house in the Hidden Valley neighborhood in Santa Rosa. Photo by Brandon McCapes.

The most destructive wildfires in California history claimed 44 lives, wiped out 8,400 homes and structures, and caused at least $9 billion in damages in Sonoma and neighboring counties last fall. No lecture, reporting exercise, or emergency planning could have prepared Santa Rosa Junior College journalism students—many of whom produce The Oak Leaf newspaper, where I serve as adviser—for the magnitude of the firestorm that swept through their community.

Co–Editor in Chief Ali Benzarara and News Editor Brandon McCapes, who recorded houses on fire in one hard-hit Santa Rosa neighborhood on day one, both struggled with the dual desires to record what they saw or to help residents hose down homes. Students quickly realized the power of the press pass and fielded multiple requests from friends, SRJC students, and even strangers to ferry them past police barricades to see if their homes still stood. They made at least one call from the only remaining pillar of a home in the Fountaingrove neighborhood, where 1,800 homes burned.

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While Benzarara’s Co–Editor James Wyatt reported the news, he also became part of it. As he interviewed SRJC students behind a police barricade, sudden winds pushed the Tubbs Fire down the hill toward his family home a few blocks away. Wyatt paced and tried to call his parents, but phone service was spotty. “I was flipping between journalist mode and ‘that’s-my-home’ mode,” he says. “As it got closer to my house, the priorities started to shift. It was almost fluid.”

As an adviser, I learned lessons on the fly that could be applied by any small newsroom forced to transform itself during disaster coverage:

  • Press passes with photo IDs and official signatures are a must. Make sure the name on each student’s press pass corresponds with the one on that student’s driver’s license. Advisors should have passes, too.
  • Teach students to take horizontal smartphone videos of breaking news and get lots of B-roll, either with phone or DSLR camera on a tripod. (Note: Instagram Stories now require vertical orientation.)
  • Assume the newsroom may soon be closed. Make a five-minute plan and a checklist for getting supplies: “go-bags” ready with cameras, mic, extra SD card and battery, laptops, chargers for all devices, tripods, card readers, reporter notebooks, AP Stylebooks. Also necessary: media placards for car windows to reduce police pullovers. (In our case, a sharpie, notebook paper and emergency supply kit bandages as tape worked fine.)
  • Plan alternate meeting places in case the newsroom is inaccessible. Don’t assume everyone will have power or wifi to receive emails. Texting may work best, but not everyone can receive group texts.
  • Journalists must adapt, especially in breaking news situations. Be prepared to switch up editor roles and responsibilities based on which students show up.
  • Simplify the news-flow process so students can access everything via phones. Google Drive and Google Docs both have apps for viewing, writing and editing stories.
  • Encourage students to expand beyond campus coverage and compete with the national news media. They likely have sources and knowledge that out-of-town journalists lack. 
  • Allow normal adviser/student walls to fall. Providing food, rides, or temporary housing may all become necessary for both safety and news production.

SRJC students learned they needed a common place to gather, discuss stories and upload content. This was one of the challenges; everyone wanted to be reporting in the field. “I would have killed to have a bunch of copy editors,” Managing Editor Albert Gregory says.

Santa Rosa Junior College Oak Leaf News Editor Brandon McCapes and Co-Editor-In-Chief Ali Benzerara interview a firefighter who drove for 10 hours overnight from the city of Rialto, California, near San Bernardino, to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds October 12 to help fight the North Bay wildfires. Photo by Anne Belden.

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Without access to their college server, they communicated by group text and wrote and edited articles via Google Docs. In essence, editors recreated the news management system in the midst of breaking news.               

Soon, students were filling the Oak Leaf website with articles, photos and videos. At daily press conferences, reporters stuck the Oak Leaf microphone alongside those from CNN, NBC and CBS. They recorded Governor Jerry Brown, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, newly popular Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano, and others. They asked questions that were broadcast nationwide.

 

In essence, editors recreated the news management system in the midst of breaking news.

 

In the first two weeks, Oak Leaf reporters uploaded 21 multimedia pieces, wrote nearly two-dozen articles and dozens of briefs, and made 80 Instagram posts and more than 110 Twitter and Facebook posts, including several live-streams. CNN picked up one of their photos, and ABC News showed students’ active fire video, as did the Youth Radio Network. First-semester student Michael Barnes tapped into the community’s trauma by reporting SRJC evacuees’ stories of fleeing the firestorm or losing their homes.

In the middle of week two, firefighters gained control, authorities lifted evacuation zones, students returned home and SRJC announced the semester would resume. Though obviously tired, the core Oak Leaf group plowed forward with an all-fire commemorative issue. With help from more classmates, they wrote an additional 24 articles in five days and pulled two all-nighters.

The remains of the Fountaingrove Village shopping center where the Tubbs Fire burned 20,000 square feet of retail space, including two popular restaurants and a grocery store. Photo by James Wyatt

The “Firestorm” issue’s heart is made of the stories collected from students and faculty: the EMT student who followed ambulances to an assisted living home and helped evacuate dozens of elderly patients; the one-legged baseball coach who barely escaped his burning neighborhood, returned to his home’s ashes and managed to find his state championship ring; and the SRJC student who evacuated with her cat and a gym bag to her ex-boyfriend’s house only to have to evacuate a second time when the fire reached his neighborhood. Collectively, SRJC students and employees lost 1,071 homes or residences.

At times, questioned whether these real disaster-reporting lessons were going too far. In the end, no one got hurt, and students gained experience no textbook or in-class exercise could provide. Their skill sets advanced a year and, in three intense weeks, they transitioned from student-reporters to journalists.

“When the wildfires burned down my city,” says Wyatt, “it showed me the impact good journalism could have on my community.”

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Anne Belden is the faculty adviser to The Oak Leaf News at Santa Rosa Junior College, where she runs the journalism program. Follow her on Twitter @abelden.