The Heat Reporter

What you see in the aftermath of the California fires

Josh Edelson / AFP via Getty Images

On November 8, 2018, the day the Camp Fire broke out, four local reporters showed up at the Butte County sheriff’s department for an end-of-day news briefing. They descended a set of narrow stairs to a dimly lit basement, which served as the county’s press headquarters, and took their seats in gray plastic folding chairs. From behind a podium, police officers and local officials provided updates: 23,872 phone numbers had been reached with a CodeRED alert, more than a thousand 911 calls had been received, and approximately six hundred people were reported missing or out of contact. They couldn’t yet confirm any deaths; the fire had been burning since morning, and many places were still too dangerous to enter. The faces of some of the officials were streaked with soot; others appeared to be in shock, eyes glassy and distant. A county supervisor had watched his home burn. “This is the fire we always feared would happen,” the sheriff said. After about an hour, they said good night.

The Camp Fire would burn for the next two weeks, becoming the most devastating fire in California history. It would grow at a rate of eighty football fields a minute, kill eighty-five people, destroy more than 11,000 homes, and reduce 153,000 acres to ash. The news would spread across the state, then the country. Hundreds of journalists from New York, Washington, and even Europe would show up to tell the story of “Paradise lost”—fashioning an easy metaphor out of the affected town’s name. So many arrived, in fact, that Cal Fire, the agency that manages most of the state’s wildfire response, would relocate the press center from the sheriff’s office basement to the local fairgrounds. Most of the journalists would stick around for a few days and then, as is often the case with disaster reporting, file their stories and fly back home.

That first night, though, it was just the four. One of them was Lizzie Johnson, a fire reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. By this time she had been on the fire beat for almost two years, and she knew what was coming. After the briefing concluded, she approached the police chief of Paradise. “Your community is going to come under the spotlight in a way that you never would have expected,” she told him. “I’m really sorry you have to go through this, because it’s going to be hard. But know that I’m not going away, and I’ll be here to tell your community’s stories.” As disorienting as the spotlight can be, Johnson had seen that, when it disappears, the result can also be cataclysmic.

The day after the press conference, Johnson headed back to Paradise along with Gabrielle Lurie, a photographer for the Chronicle. There are a few ways to reach Paradise by car, and they chose Honey Run Road, an isolated, twisting route along the forested mountain ridgeline. They did not know that, in the event of a fire, this road leaves a vehicle surrounded by trees and with only one way out. As Johnson and Lurie drove, in separate cars, they saw trees scorched to embers whose branches could fall at any moment. Power lines were already down, crisscrossing the asphalt, and Johnson knew that it was impossible to tell if the lines were live or not. Lurie’s car made it over one, but Johnson’s didn’t—she got stuck, and the two were terrified to try to move the wire. The moment recalled a day the previous year, while Johnson was covering the Thomas Fire; she had found herself in an avocado grove, outrunning a sudden gust of flames. “It’s scary in a way that embeds in your bones a little bit,” she told me.

Eventually, they managed to move Johnson’s car and continued toward town to report for the day on the fire’s impact. It was a place Johnson had never been, and as she passed destroyed and smoldering houses and buildings, she tried to get the lay of the land. “These wildfires are the closest thing you have to war journalism in the United States—the death, the widespread devastation, the way things look,” she told me. Later, she met back up with Lurie at their hotel. (Johnson and Lurie always room together during fires so that at the end of the day they have someone to talk to, and sometimes to cry with.) Lurie’s chest was splotched with burns. She’d been wearing her jacket with the top button undone and encountered a blast of embers. In moments such as these, Johnson said later, “You’re aware of the fact that you’re lucky to be alive and to breathe clean air and have a house that’s standing.”

Despite the urgency of being on the ground, Johnson considered the work of covering the fire itself a small part of her job. She was more interested in what came next. After most of Paradise had burned and the news crews had flown home, Johnson understood that the story wasn’t over; that, in many ways, it was just beginning. So she packed some bags, left her apartment in San Francisco, found a room in a local family’s home, and moved part-time to Paradise to report on the recovery.

“Your community is going to come under the spotlight in a way that you never would have expected.”

 

To live in California during fire season is to feel that your state has fallen off the map. There are days at a stretch when homes burn, the air fills with smoke, and the power is cut, turning off refrigerators, respirators, heaters, streetlights. Schools are forced to let out; workplaces grind to a halt. Yet the national news remains mostly quiet.

Eventually, the outside press catches up—and sometimes overshoots the mark. This past fall, during a slower fire season than the previous few years, a rash of stories emerged about California’s undoing. “It’s the End of California as We Know It,” proclaimed an October op-ed in the New York Times. On the same day, The Atlantic ran a headline assessment: “California Is Becoming Unlivable.” Business Insider came to the same finding, and added a gesture to scientific credibility: “California Is Becoming Unlivable, According to Science.” In January, the San Francisco Chronicle published its response to the attention: “If there’s one thing you can count on in the new year it’s this: The rest of the world will kick California when she’s down.”

Certainly, California has problems. The state has always been prone to wildfires; slow-burning, naturally occurring fires help thin the trees. But climate change has brought hotter temperatures and prolonged droughts, meaning the fires travel farther, faster; since 2000, the average acreage lost every year as a result of climate change is double that of the 1990s. In 2018 alone, 1.67 million acres of the state burned. This easily combustible landscape is strung with outdated electrical infrastructure, too—igniting so many fires that PG&E, the state utilities company, has filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, rising housing costs edge more and more people into suburban enclaves built in densely forested areas.

To Californians, however, the stories about their home state’s newfound “unlivability” rang as absurd hyperbole, even offensive. Those pieces, Audrey Cooper, the Chronicle’s editor in chief, lamented, resembled “crappy clickbait pseudo-journalism.”

“I have never felt the East Coast media bias more than in the last two years,” she told me. “When national outlets attempt to play catch-up and the click game, it really is a disservice to Californians, and to the rest of the country, because it makes us seem very other, and like these fires are not a national crisis. And they are.” California, she points out, is the country’s largest economy, and the fifth largest in the world. In November, Cooper tweeted a link to a CBS story about a winter storm watch in New York City. “BREAKING,” she wrote. “East Coast is becoming an unlivable, dark underworld of terror. Love, West Coast media.”

Given that the fires are exacerbated by climate change, a crisis affecting everyone, the national media should be paying attention. But parachute journalists tend to write stories for readers far away from catastrophe who are consuming the news as spectacle, at the expense of locals. As Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, told me, “The primary responsibility with news reporting is to make sure people are informed of decisions related to their personal safety.” People in affected areas need to know where the fire is, where it is heading, the recommended routes for evacuation, and how to find help. One of law enforcement’s main challenges during a fire, says Lieutenant Anthony Borgman of the Paradise Police Department, is reaching everyone. Public officials, he says, rely on journalists to serve as messengers, and sometimes residents plead with reporters on social media to check on their homes or their loved ones.

The week after the Camp Fire, when the people of Paradise were still barred from returning home, Johnson stayed out until dark one day to visit addresses people sent her. She took photos of what she found and posted them on Twitter; most of their houses were gone.

Johnson, who is twenty-seven, moved to California soon after graduating college. Originally from Nebraska, she studied journalism at the University of Missouri and, after a short stint interning at the Chicago Tribune, landed a job at the Chronicle. She spent two years covering city politics, but she began to find the work dull. One night, she stayed out late to observe the success of a train station wall coated with “pee repellent” paint. She started to question whether she belonged in journalism. In 2017, as Johnson was beginning to itch for work that felt more meaningful, Cooper dispatched her to wine country, to help cover the fires there. She fell right into step with it. “I loved talking with people and feeling like I was making a difference in their lives before the story even came out,” Johnson told me. Soon enough, she was needed on another fire. One day, as she was putting on mascara before work, she said to herself, “I want to be the Chronicle’s fire reporter.” She began introducing herself that way; eventually, Cooper did the same.

As the paper’s first full-time fire reporter, Johnson has been working almost ceaselessly for the past few years. It’s been hard on her friendships; she doesn’t see people as much as she’d like, and she often feels like the nature of her work—flying off at a moment’s notice to cover a fire—means she’s letting people down. She sometimes cancels plans simply because she’s exhausted. In November, she spent her first Thanksgiving at home in Nebraska in years. But the work, she says, feels both urgent and useful.

From the ashes: Lizzie Johnson writes about what happens when a fire is over. Photo: Scott Strazzante

The Chronicle has always covered wildfires, but California’s current reality has forced a more consistent beat. Local reporters like Johnson are on the front lines during fire disasters and relief efforts. Proximity allows them to respond more immediately, to be on the ground longer, and to cover fire-related issues in the interim, after the flames have been quelled.

But such coverage is also expensive. While Johnson is the only reporter dedicated almost exclusively to the fire beat, covering a wildfire in action requires a team of reporters and photographers to cover the scope of the blaze, fire suppression efforts, relief efforts, and impacts on communities and the landscape. In addition to the overtime and travel costs, newspapers must invest in safety equipment. The Chronicle bought $24,000 worth of safety gear for its reporters, including fire-resistant suits and personal fire shelters. During fire season, the staff works around the clock, accumulating hours of overtime.

“The unyielding and horrific and devastating nature of these fires has forced our newsroom to get really, really good at covering them,” Cooper said. An interactive map, modeled on Chronicle graphics that have helped readers track local crime, allows people to follow the movement of active fires, monitor air quality, and anticipate planned power outages officials put into effect to reduce fire risk. According to Cooper, the interactive maps are, by an order of magnitude, the most popular features on the website. But such innovations are not yet given due credit in the journalism industry. “You don’t submit the interactive outage map for the national prize,” Cooper said. “That’s not what’s going to take home the Pulitzer. But it should.”

Recently, other regional papers have bulked up their fire coverage, too: the Sacramento Bee, the Los Angeles Times, and tiny outfits like Placerville, California’s Mountain Democrat. “This is our new reality,” Carol Simon, editor of the Mountain Democrat, said, “and we have to learn how to deal with it.”

National news outlets aren’t likely to send a journalist to conduct sustained reporting on every fire. But even the typical framing of wildfire stories in the media can be misleading: the stories, explains Culver, too often portray a single dramatic event rather than the series of policy decisions that led to that event. Public officials and fire experts point to an absence of stories on fire prevention, ones that could applaud progress and persuade people to modify their personal behavior or support legislation in favor of fire safety measures. Coming from a local reporter with experience covering some of the more mundane aspects of everyday policy, Johnson’s fire reporting is noteworthy in its textured, people-centered portrayal of the fire and associated impacts; its inquiry into the science and policies that led to the fire; and its reckoning with the long shadow a fire casts upon communities, far into the future.

Her aim is to keep readers tuned in. Early in her fire reporting, Johnson noticed that many fire stories—hers included—sounded similar; they often relied on the same beats, the same kinds of quotes, the same tropes. (A woman who left her wedding ring at home, for example, only for it to burn.) Johnson began to wonder if disaster fatigue happened when stories felt predictable. So she changed her approach to make the fire secondary, a “supporting character” in a more surprising and nuanced human story—and readers paid attention.

Too often, she said, coverage tries to hit people over the head with a “climate change caused this” moral. “I’m now thinking more like, What does climate change feel like? If we changed the model, maybe people will listen more, and we can do more work with our storytelling.”

“The unyielding and horrific and devastating nature of these fires has forced our newsroom to get really, really good at covering them.”

 

In Paradise, Johnson took her time and hung around. When PG&E officials first arrived to tour the town’s destruction, the Chronicle was the only outlet there. When Cal Fire announced that the Camp Fire had been sparked by a faulty PG&E electrical line, Johnson heard the simmering rage in the voices of residents. Once businesses reopened, she got lunch at the local Thai place and listened to the other diners’ laments and frustrations. She went to get her nails done at the salon across from the police station. She overheard conversations in line at the grocery store.

After a few months, Johnson came to know the neighborhoods in Paradise, what roads led to where and what roads led—to the peril of some residents during the fire—nowhere. She watched as homes were rebuilt, as the deer and squirrels returned, noticed when sprouts poked out from beneath the char. She was interested in these stories of rebuilding: how life persisted, and changed, in the wake of the fire. The post office, for example, was suddenly inundated with people opening PO boxes—they no longer had addresses. Each night, Johnson would take a walk through the razed neighborhood where she was staying. Under the stars and with the scorch obscured, she could feel what people meant when they spoke so lovingly of Paradise: just how beautiful a place it had been to live.

By the time we met, in December, Johnson had been living in town part-time for about a year. She arrived at our agreed-upon spot, a newly reopened Starbucks, in a peacoat and a pastel knit hat, its pom-pom bouncing as she greeted me with a hug. She then offered to give me a tour of the town in her 2011 Toyota Corolla, which she lovingly calls Cora. Pointing through a windshield pocked by debris, she showed me the houses that had survived and the new ones going up. She called my attention to scars on the road—these were burn marks, she explained, where cars had been destroyed, sometimes with their drivers still behind the wheel. She took me by the police station and indicated a sign in front that featured a carved wooden bear and read “Welcome to Bearadise!”; it had been salvaged from a burned-down diner. We parked for a moment, and she went inside to leave a note for the police chief. “I just always like to check in and let folks know I’m around,” she said.

This level of attention to people in the community is what has distinguished the Chronicle’s coverage of Paradise. When Cooper heard about a firefighter who had protected himself and two others in a tiny tentlike structure barely large enough for a single person during the Kincade Fire, she sent Johnson to find out who he was; it turned out Johnson already knew the firefighter. Johnson’s dedication has also landed her a book deal. Back in the car, she explained that she had gotten queries from literary agents and publishers in the months after the Camp Fire. She considered whether she could ethically approach a larger project as a reporter, and particularly as an outsider. But she’d also been following the fires for years, and she was one of the few reporters who’d stuck around. People in town trusted her.

We left Paradise and drove five miles up the hill to a town called Magalia, where Johnson was reporting on a church that had become a relief center for people in the area. Dozens of residents whose homes had burned were living in trailers behind the church, which had opened a donations headquarters; people could come by four times a week for food, clothing, blankets, sanitary items, and toys. The holidays were approaching, and the aisles were stocked with Christmas decorations and presents for children. The church also hosted free counseling sessions.

Inside, a line of about a dozen people waited their turn to collect donated goods. Johnson, her notebook out, conversed easily, asking people how they were faring and what their plans were for Christmas. She was a good listener: quiet, unassuming, persistent. People relaxed in her presence.

I spoke with a volunteer named Doreen Fogle, who was checking people in at the front desk. Fogle was one of the lucky ones: her house hadn’t burned. A retiree, she took classes in nearby Chico four days a week, but after the fire she couldn’t bring herself to drive through the devastation in town. Instead, she started aiding with the church’s relief efforts, serving meals to displaced residents and helping to organize the donation center. She told me how, as the fire pushed its way up the hill, she constantly refreshed the Chronicle’s heat map. After she decided it was time to evacuate, she kept looking at the map—watching her address as the flames raged.

While the fire was burning, she told me, she had appreciated the media presence. The attention was helpful to her for writing grant applications and soliciting donations. But now, after a year had elapsed, the news consisted of only a handful of anniversary stories. “The help and support drifts away,” she told me. “When the media attention disappears, people think everything’s okay.” Now her requests for donations are sometimes met with suspicion. “People say, ‘How can we help?’ It’s like, keep it in the media,” she said. “We’re still rebuilding.”

 

As climate change disasters, from fire to drought to flooding to tropical storms, worsen over time, so, too, will the mental health impacts on journalists covering these stories. Ryan Sabalow, a fire reporter for the Sacramento Bee, spoke at a public talk in November about the stress of his work. Sabalow showed a photograph of a family he had written about during the Carr Fire: a woman whose children had burned to death in their home, and beside her the children’s grandfather. “Months later, I could still hear his big, gulping, baritone sobs,” Sabalow said, through his own tears. Once he filed his story, he returned home to his own family. “Everything I owned stunk like smoke and stress and sadness,” he recalled. “I was fried.” But at least, he thought, that fire would be the worst of the year. Two months later came the Camp Fire.

Last fall, feeling overwhelmed by the emotional toll of her reporting work, Johnson started seeing a therapist. She’s often hesitant to talk about her personal experience, lest it overshadow the pain suffered by the communities she’s writing about. And in the office, journalism’s grin-and-bear-it culture can discourage people from talking about how the work affects them. “You just quietly carry your baggage around,” she said. On the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, Johnson finally hit what she called a “breaking point.” She was driving through Paradise and passed a house that still looked freshly destroyed. She pulled over and sobbed. “I just couldn’t believe that so little had changed,” she said.

Winter offers a brief reprieve from the flames, but Johnson, who is finishing her book, keeps on reporting. Soon the fires will start back up. “I just always feel on edge,” Johnson says of the off-season. Though she’s committed to the fire beat, she doesn’t know if she can do it forever.

At the Magalia church, I asked Fogle what she thought about the national news stories claiming California had become unlivable. “Everywhere has a potential for disaster,” she said. “There’s no safe place to live.”

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Lauren Markham has written for Guernica, Harper’s, the New York Times, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she is a contributing editor. Her book The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life (2017) received the Northern California Book Award, the California Book Award Silver Medal, and the Ridenhour Prize.