Wildfires are becoming more frequent across the world and increasing in both severity and extent, according to Science Brief, a website that reviews peer-reviewed scientific studies on various topics, including climate change. Media workers covering any wildfire should be aware of the dynamic nature of such a disaster, and how a rapidly evolving situation on the ground can potentially place them in harm’s way.
To help minimize the risks, editors and journalists should consider the following safety information and plan accordingly.
Important: The level of training, standard of equipment and experience of the fire authorities will vary depending upon the location. In certain countries, firefighters are volunteers who may have received little or no training, as highlighted by CPJ in Bolivia. Be aware that fire level warnings (e.g. high, severe, catastrophic etc.) and relevant safety procedures may vary at a local, national, and international level.
- Access to the scene of a wildfire may be tightly controlled and/or regulated by the relevant fire authorities, with media access granted at their discretion. Note that in some countries, the authorities may insist upon advance fire safety training before allowing media personnel to report from an affected location.
- Media workers should be in good health with a relative level of fitness. Conditions can be oppressive with high temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds. You may need to move fast considering the fluid situation on the ground. Those with respiratory issues such as asthma should consider and discuss whether they can cope with working in such conditions.
- Conduct a thorough risk assessment, including any dangers you may face and what emergency procedures are in place. Complete a will and inform your next of kin of your intentions. Ensure a manager, colleague, or friend views the risk assessment. You can use CPJ’s Risk Assessment Template, which can be found here.
- Ensure that somebody is aware of your location and intentions, and communicate any changes to your plans. Arrange a regular “check-in” procedure, as well as an escalation process in the event of an emergency.
- Ensure you have a reliable means of communication. Phones should be fully charged before leaving for the assignment. If this is not feasible take a portable power bank and charger with you.
- Contact the fire authorities in advance to get as much accurate information as possible, and monitor local radio, TV stations, and social media for up-to-date information.
- Working alone at the scene of a wildfire is not advised due to the hazardous operating environment.
- Check that your insurance policy covers you to work at a wildfire location, with an appropriate level of medical and emergency cover.
- Consider and discuss the risk of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Media workers may witness distressing scenes as people’s properties are destroyed and animals killed. Such scenes of complete destruction can be distressing. See the Dart Centre’s article on Working With Traumatic Imagery and CPJ’s psychological safety note for more detailed advice.
Never underestimate the speed, power and destructive nature of a wildfire. Even small fires can rapidly escalate and spread due to dry conditions, high temperatures, and prevailing winds. Note that fires typically progress in the direction of the ambient wind, so always pay attention to wind direction and reposition accordingly.
- If working alongside the fire authorities, pay attention to their instructions and avoid distracting them from doing their job.
- Observe all cordons, and never position yourself ahead of any fire personnel.
- It is essential to maintain constant situational awareness. Remain alert to the fire location, wind direction, and movement, noting that fires can change direction in seconds, and that new fires can start as ashes, cinders, and other debris circulates.
- Identify key landmarks that can help you orient yourself if you become lost.
- Try and report from a vantage point away from the main body of the fire and upwind of smoke or hazardous particles.
- Avoid positioning yourself on ground above a fire — noting that fire typically travels uphill at a fast pace due to the rising heat and smoke preheating the land higher up.
- Never position yourself between two burning fronts, and always identify multiple exit routes. Constantly monitor and reassess these escape routes.
- Avoid getting close to burning buildings which could collapse. Note the risk of asbestos fibers and other harmful contaminants circulating in the air, which can have long term and life shortening health effects.
- Keep a safe distance from gas supplies, electrical posts and cables, combustible materials, batteries, and/or fuel and oil storage containers.
- Visibility will likely be reduced due to the smoke/haze created by fires. Exercise caution when walking and pay attention to hazards on the ground ahead of you, especially if you are wearing a full face respirator to help protect you.
- If caught in a wildfire on foot, use water, natural dips, or caves to your advantage. Lie down on the ground and cover yourself as much as possible, using anything that may help deflect or absorb the radiant heat. If possible put a large rock or large tree trunk between you and the fire.
- Be prepared to retreat at any point in case the situation deteriorates. Stay together as a team and be clear about the direction or landmarks you are following. Report back when safe to do so.
- Local people affected by wildfires will likely be upset and/or angry. Always seek permission before filming or photographing them and their property. If they say no, leave your details so they can contact you later.
- Regularly stop to drink water — it is important to keep hydrated.
Equipment & Clothing
- If working with the fire authorities they may provide the relevant personal protective equipment (PPE), such as helmets, respirators, protective coveralls, safety goggles, gloves, and boots. If they do not, consider what PPE you may need to source in advance.
- Wear natural fire retardant fibers like cotton and wool that cover your arms and legs.
- Wear shoes/boots with laces and thick soles that have some kind of ankle support.
- Consider the necessity of wearing leather gloves to help protect your hands.
- Take an emergency first aid kit with you (including burn gel sachets, burn dressings, and eye wash solution), plenty of drinking water, energy snacks, and a decent flashlight with spare batteries.
- It is advisable to avoid wearing contact lenses due to the oppressive conditions.
Driving & Vehicles
- Always drive defensively and with your headlights on.
- Remain alert to flying and/or falling debris, as well as escaping animals who may run out into the road.
- Park vehicles an appropriate distance away from the main body of fire, away from bush or long grass, and facing the direction of escape.
- Vehicle air filters may quickly become clogged with ash. Ensure you know how to remove the filter to clean it, and consider taking a spare filter with you in case of an emergency.
- Never obstruct emergency vehicles or civilian escape routes with your vehicle(s).
- Ensure your vehicle has a fully charged fire extinguisher on board.
- Keep a safe distance from abandoned vehicles, which could catch fire and explode.
- If caught in a wildfire whilst driving, try and park in a clearing or area of low vegetation and/or behind a solid object like a brick building. Close all vents, windows and doors. Shelter in the car below window level with a woolen blanket over you if available. Keep hydrated.
Media workers may report from emergency/evacuation centers for people who have been displaced. Such locations could be overcrowded, meaning COVID-19 physical distancing safety measures may not be implemented and/or adhered to, increasing the chances of being exposed to the virus.
Media workers who fall into the COVID-19 vulnerable category and/or who reside with vulnerable individuals should therefore consider and discuss the associated risks. Note that high volumes of virus droplets may circulate in the air if people are coughing due to the side effects of smoke inhalation. Relevant personal protective equipment (PPE) should be considered (e.g. face masks, hand sanitizer etc.), as well as an understanding about regularly and thoroughly washing your hands, avoiding touching your face, and the routine cleaning of equipment.
For more detailed safety advice regarding COVID-19 and reporting, please refer to CPJ’s Covering the coronavirus pandemic advisory.