Firefighters run for cover as a helicopter drops water while battling the Glass Fire on October 1, 2020, in Calistoga, California. (Getty Images/AFP/Justin Sullivan)

“I’ve lost count of the number of fires I’ve covered this year”: How journalists stay safe covering U.S. wildfires

Photojournalist Kent Porter has covered wildfires in the western United States for more than 30 years. But this year, he says, the fires are different. The season’s first fire usually burns about one or two acres, Porter told CPJ in a phone interview. This year, however, the first fire he covered was 140 acres.

“Usually we’ll get the little fires, one or two acres. But right out of the bat, probably in March, I covered three or four of those,” Porter told CPJ. “In June it just took off. Big fires, enough to make the news. These fires threaten homes, livestock, drivers. It’s just kind of off the charts.”

Record-breaking wildfires have burned through forests and communities across California, Washington, and Oregon this year, leaving devastation in their wake. This has been the worst fire season in 70 years, according to Science magazine, and with the uncontrollable flames come displaced families, destroyed wildlife habitats, and toxic smoke. This year, the additional threats of COVID-19 and misinformation about the wildfires were added to the mix, and presented new layers of challenging working conditions for the press, officials, and firefighters, according to news reports.

In late September, CPJ interviewed three journalists via phone about their experience covering wildfires in U.S. western states, and about the different kinds of danger presented by wildfire coverage. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

For more information on how to safely cover fires, see CPJ’s safety advisory on covering wildfires.

Kent Porter, photojournalist at The Press-Democrat, Santa Rosa, California

How do you prepare for covering wildfires?

We’ve always had fires, but the intensity of the fires has changed. The nighttime fires are more intense now. We could usually count on one major fire a year, but now our coverage of fires has been since March and April. I’ve lost count of the number of fires I’ve covered this year.

Unless you’re a firefighter, you can’t really train to cover fires. It’s more about the experience. We usually get our fire safety training through Cal Fire (the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection), although not this year because of COVID-19. People from all different news outlets attend, and it’s on everybody’s mind that they do it. They teach you about slope-driven fires; that you shouldn’t be in front of a fire when it’s uphill. A fire goes 17 times faster than you can run, depending on what way the wind is blowing. They teach you how to use the gear.

I read the national weather forecast four times a day, every single day. Over the years of chasing tornadoes and thunderstorms, I’ve picked up on a lot of what weather will do. I use the Windy app for weather, and TV station applications, including weather radars. I also use the NIFC-GACC (National Interagency Fire Center-National Geographic Area Coordination Center) website; it’s broken up in regions, and they have a seven-day fire weather forecast.

What equipment and gear do you use to cover wildfires safely?

When I got to The Press-Democrat in 1987, there was no fire gear. I went to the California Department of Forestry (CDF) and got my first fire shelter. The fire shelter is a last resort; if you have to deploy it, you’re up the creek without a paddle. It’s a last gasp alternative to not dying. Organizations need to press for safety gear.

I wear a helmet, and on it I have a pair of goggles, similar to ski goggles. The helmet also has a shroud that you can wrap your face in when it gets hot. You might have a headlamp on the helmet, because you need that light with you. Helmets protect you from the fire and from the embers burning your hair. They also protect you from falling branches.

I wear a brush jacket and Nomex pants, which are fire-resistant. I carry a fire shelter on web gear, and I have a 60-oz. Camelbak. You can’t carry a bottle everywhere you go. I have two pairs of gloves, one leather pair for smaller fires and a heavier pair of gloves for larger ones. If you burn your feet or hands, it’s an automatic helicopter flight out of there. Burns to soft tissue can get really bad really quickly.

I wear lace-up boots, non-steel toe, 8-inches or higher off the ground. They’re also called logger boots. If you step in an ash pit or stump hole — where a tree burns down right into the roots — you can go down into your knee in one of those.

What tips do you have for journalists who are new to covering fires?

You’re going to have to start out somewhere. You’re going to make mistakes because you don’t have the generational experience of covering big news. They need to study and read everything they can about fires, depending on the region they’re in. Fires in Colorado would be different from fires in California, for example. They need to reach out to their local fire authority for training. Journalists need to arm themselves with proper information. They need to be respectful to people who are fighting the fire. Go out and experience it.

Noelle Crombie, reporter at The Oregonian / OregonLive

What has coverage of the wildfires meant for you this year?

This year was my first year going out on a wildfire. These were the fires that began over Labor Day weekend. These fires were unprecedented in scope in Oregon. They were up and down the western part of the state. It was an all-hands-on-deck situation.

What did preparation look like for you?

Every year the paper prepares for the wildfire season. We do a forecast, we have a team of people who volunteer to cover it. Those fires tend to be in rural areas and state or federal forest areas. In the past I’ve volunteered for it, but I haven’t been tapped to go.

We have gear in the newsroom: boots, brush jackets and Nomex pants. All of this gear sits in this big bin in the newsroom. It’s there year round and I haven’t given it much thought over the years. I haven’t had any fire training, but the gear is available for us.

Tell me about your first day covering the Almeda Fire.

I’ve done a lot of reporting in southern Oregon, so I’m familiar with the region. When the fires broke out in southern Oregon, in Jackson County, I started making calls. These were urban fires that began in the city of Ashland and spread north in the city of Medford. This was the day after the fires had spread through these communities, and I was trying to get a handle on what the damage was. I was able to quickly reach municipal leaders in these areas and they were able to sketch out the damage. It was a tale that was really grim; low-income housing stock decimated. That story I did by phone.

The following day, the paper was sending out teams to cover the fires in Lane County and in Clackamas County. I was going to be paired up with my colleague, and the idea was that I would work the phones while he would go out. The safety calculation was: We’re still in COVID, and the wildfire smoke was toxic, creating challenging working conditions. If you wanted to work from home, you could.

But I didn’t think I could cover this effectively from home. The fire spread through on Tuesday, and we hit the road on Thursday. We stopped by the newsroom and grabbed boots and the clothing. No helmet, no respirator; it was poor preparation on my part. My colleague grabbed some N95 masks. We were driving on I-5 and as we approached Salem, the smoke was awful. It was hard to see, it was a grey, heavy toxic fog. It never let up. It made it really hard to breathe. I put the mask on in the car right out of Portland, and I didn’t take it off until I got to the hotel five hours later. When we got to southern Oregon, the smoke was still present, but it wasn’t as bad as when we drove through the center of the state. It was hard to conduct interviews with an N95 mask on.

We didn’t wear the gear we brought because the fire wasn’t a threat anymore. However, when we got into some of these incinerated homes, there were spot fires burning, smoldering embers. Looking back, I should have had better footwear. I was walking around in ashy areas.

How did you manage to navigate the threat of COVID-19 while reporting?

I encountered these COVID-19-related issues immediately when I got on the ground. We were in the town of Phoenix and sat in an empty parking lot when an older woman walked over in a shell-shocked state. I went over to see if she was OK. She had come back to see if her dogs had survived; of course, they had not. She was so distraught. I said, I’m so sorry, I wish I could give you a hug, this is a terrible thing that you’ve experienced. I did give her a hug. My first interaction on this reporting trip, and I’m hugging someone. She was in such a state of trauma and loss, and all she had was her car. I ended up shaking hands with people; other people reached out their hands. I don’t want that to be a distraction for the subject. It’s a very quick calculation you make in your mind. I did have a mask on the whole time and I used hand sanitizer.

I came back feeling like I barely scratched the surface, and saw a tremendous need for journalism in this part of Oregon, to look at the human toll of the Almeda fire. I was just so grateful for those two N95 masks in the back seat.

Nathan Howard, freelance documentary photographer based in Portland, Oregon

When did you start covering the wildfires in Oregon?

I started my coverage of the Almeda Fire on September 10. The fires really kicked off that week. There were 90 mph winds, and 500,000 acres were burning within 12 hours. I had been covering the protests in Portland, but the air quality was so bad that the protests were off anyway. I’ve been a photojournalist in the Pacific Northwest for six years. These fires are the biggest Oregon has ever had. We get bad fires, but it’s not like California.

You ran into some trouble with local community members while covering the fires recently. Tell us what happened.

People were a lot more suspicious of the press covering the fires than in previous years. A lot of that is to do with misinformation, and a lot of protesters posing as press in Portland. Once you explain who you are, they’re friendly. Most of the time people come around to you eventually.

I had a run-in with a hostile group on the first day of my coverage. I was on assignment for Getty, and I was driving around the backroads of Estacada, Oregon, a city about 30 miles southeast of downtown Portland. I pulled into a house that had clearly been evacuated to make a feature photo of a scarecrow with smoke in the background. I had time to take one photo when a blue pickup truck pulled up. I explained who I am and showed them my press pass to show them I’m a journalist. It was my press ID issued by the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA).

Initially, I did not read him as a far-right militia guy. I thought he was a volunteer firefighter, and that he was angry I was working in an evacuation zone. At the time, a level three evacuation order, meaning “go now,” was in effect. He asked me why I had Washington license plates if I was out there working. There was something that clicked in his head and he thought I was looting. At that point in time, I didn’t need to be there anyway. I said there was a misunderstanding, and I said I’d leave.

He talked into his lapel like he had a mic on and read my license plate. He told me, “You gotta go, I got my boys coming.” I got in my car to leave, and his pickup truck was blocking my car. He backed up, and I drove out of there thinking that was that. I still thought he was a firefighter, but then he started following me. I thought, “This guy might not be an official.” He tailgated me for five miles, and that’s when a white pickup truck pulled perpendicular to me.

The guy in the white pickup truck got out with an assault rifle and his finger was on the trigger. I didn’t feel like they ever wanted to hurt me, they just wanted to intimidate me. He asked me what I was doing here. I said I’m a journalist; he said no, you’re not a journalist, you’re a looter. That interaction went on for three minutes: you need to leave; I can’t, you have me blocked in; you’re a looter; no, I’m a journalist. Another truck arrived, and it didn’t occur to me until later that they were holding me there until this guy pulled up. He was much calmer and much more polite. I showed him my press pass and my cameras. This guy said I should photograph the evacuation on the main roads, not where I was.

One of them told me, “If we see you up here again, we’re going to put you in a ditch.” I don’t know if I could call them a militia. I would call them a community watch group. It’s common during the fires. You have these community groups forming amid rumors about looting and rioters from Portland coming in. When that happens, the cops are gone because they’re helping evacuation and firefighters. I finally drove away and met up with another group of journalists because I decided I was done covering that alone.

What else do you do to keep yourself safe while covering fires?

If I’m anywhere near flames, I wear a fire-retardant shirt and pants, the same as what firefighters wear. I wear a hard helmet, good study work boots, and a K95 mask or N95 mask. I drink a lot of water and stay really hydrated. I check-in with my editors at start and end of the day.

The journalists who covered the protests are the same who cover the fires now. We usually check-in with each other. We work in groups to cover the protests, and we started doing the same thing with the fires. We text in the morning and get in the car. The cons are that you get the same content as your colleagues, but the pros are that you don’t get killed. This working in a group thing, I wouldn’t do it unless I felt that it was a serious risk to my safety.