Reporters gear up for around-the-clock coverage of California fires

Posted November 12, 2018 2:35 p.m. EST

— The stories of the California wildfires are being told through video diaries by survivors, vivid updates from reporters, and wall-to-wall live coverage by local stations.

TV news helicopters are providing live shots that evacuees can use to check on their homes and their neighborhoods. And newsrooms are stocking up on supplies for dangerous assignments.

Until this year the state's single deadliest blaze, according to Cal Fire, was the Griffith Park fire of 1933. It took 29 lives. In the past few days, the Camp Fire in Northern California has claimed 29 lives.

"GRIM MILESTONE: 29 DEAD, 228 MISSING" is the banner headline in Monday's Sacramento Bee newspaper.

And as Lizzie Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle tweeted Sunday night, "we aren't out of this yet." Not even close. Red-flag conditions persist both up north and down south. Reporters like Johnson will be covering the firefighting effort and the recovery for the foreseeable future.

The paper's top editor, Audrey Cooper, tweeted a budget of her newsroom's recent expenditures, to give readers a sense of what goes into the fire coverage. "About $24,000 to outfit 9 journalists and keep them safe," Cooper said.

The budget listed fire shelters, flame-resistant Nomex attire, gloves, goggles, boots, and other gear.

The burned down town of Paradise, where the Camp Fire started, has been the epicenter of the coverage in Northern California.

Multiple camera phone videos of people fleeing Paradise, with bright orange fires raging in close range, have received national news attention. In the videos, residents narrate the disaster that's unfolding before their eyes.

One of the videos, uploaded to YouTube on Friday, has stoked controversy because it shows multiple dead bodies. A Paradise resident who narrowly survived the firestorm last Thursday, Greg Woodcox, filmed it on his phone.

"I'm going to show you what happened here. This poor soul right here got burned out," Woodcox said, the trauma evident in his voice.

At one point a human skeleton can be seen in the passenger seat of a burnt-out car.

The comments on YouTube are mixed, with some users criticizing the grisly images and others saying it needs to be seen.

A user who described himself as a wildland firefighter wrote that "this is what the public needs to see. Too many think that evacuation notices and alerts are 'over the top' or 'not mandatory' and would rather stay."

On Monday The Chronicle wrote about Woodcox and how he tried to save his neighbors.

Reporters covering these stories occasionally become grief counselors.

Chronicle reporter Evan Sernoffsky tweeted this photo of a colleague, Jessica Christian, comforting an "elderly survivor who miraculously made it through" the firestorm in Paradise:

Cooper, the Chronicle editor, told Poynter that "we've unfortunately gotten very, very good at this," meaning covering these fires. "We know our interactive fire tracker will take off online, we know the 'What we know, what we don't' sidebars are very useful for people. Air quality sidebars are done from muscle memory. And we know we will meet residents who will be part of our reporting for months and years to come."

Sometimes reporters are among the affected. For part of the day on Sunday, the editor of the Chico Enterprise-Record, the closest daily paper to Paradise, was having a hard time locating several of his employees. They were found safe by the end of the day.

Amid hopes that the 228 people reported missing will be found alive, The Enterprise-Record printed the missing persons hotline phone number on the front page on Monday.

Paradise also has a twice-a-week paper, the Paradise Post, which is updating its website with practical information like lists of destroyed structures and guides to finding lost pets.

In Southern California, the Woolsey Fire near Malibu has killed 2 people.

Social media posts from celebrities -- some of whom have lost their homes -- have helped personalized the story.

There, too, video diaries from evacuees have provided harrowing up-close views of the danger.

TV stations in Los Angeles have had their helicopters in the air for long stretches to show the fire-fighting efforts.

The CBS-owned station posted a webpage full of "footage from our aerial shots across the Malibu area in effort to help residents discern if their homes have been affected."

Local reporters have been joined by national news crews from all the major networks. ABC and NBC's nightly newscasts were anchored from southern California on Friday, and ABC's David Muir will anchor from there again on Monday.