Tales From the Fire Line

Nov 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

KTLA-TV’s Willa Sandmeyer didn’t know she was seconds away from inadvertently making CNN’s California wildfire highlight reel.
The veteran reporter was standing on a road in the residential area of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., giving her report. The fire was nearby, but she wasn’t worried. She had covered wildfires before, even won an Emmy for her fire coverage in 1993. She knew to be aware of her surroundings. She knew to maintain a clear escape route and plan for a worst-case scenario. And besides, the flames were pretty modest.
Then the wind shifted. And gusted. Hard.
The flames went impossibly vertical, coming right down on her.
She suddenly wished she had worn protective clothing like some of the other reporters, but it was too late now. She halted her report and ran to her van, cameraman in tow. They jumped in and took off as flames licked the sides of the van.
The next day, Ms. Sandmeyer wore a mask and a bandana.
Such close calls were common throughout the week as every news team in California battled to cover the destructive series of wildfires that blazed through the countryside and residential areas alike. The fires have been blamed for 20 deaths, including a firefighter, and resulted in the loss of at least 2,500 homes.
Los Angeles news crews had to brave smoke, heat, ash and a fire that would change direction with the wind.
“In all my years here as a native Angeleno, I’ve never seen so many fires going on at the same time in such a wide geographic area,” said KTLA news director Jeff Wald. “It’s very hard to chase something like this, the winds keep shifting, it’s caught a lot of people by surprise.”
Stories of near-misses abounded. Up in Lake Arrowhead, a burning tree fell right in front of KTTV’s news van. Another news team was drenched by water dropped from a plane while on-air.
And not all reporters got away unscathed. Veteran KNBC-TV reporter Chuck Henry nearly died in his news van when a backfire jumped a highway (see accompanying story). The near-misses prompted Kelly McBride, a member of the ethics faculty for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, to note that news teams should receive wildfire training before they’re put near flames.
“If you live in an area where there are wildfires, as a newsroom you have to anticipate what it takes to cover a wildfire like you’d anticipate what it takes to cover a war,” said Kelly McBride, a member of the ethics faculty for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “You should have fire-retardant jumpsuits and hard hats and know how to survive.”
Many on-camera reporters made do with what was handy, at least at first. As the week progressed, vanity was forgotten as reporters donned goggles, masks, hard hats and protective suits. They worked 10, 12, 14 hours. At the end of the day reporters went home and collapsed, exhausted, with tender throats and red eyes and reeking of smoke.
But for one reporter, KTLA’s Mark Kriski, the job almost followed him home.
“I was doing the weather and watching Skycam 5 and all of a sudden the fire jumped [a freeway] and it’s approaching a community two miles from my house,” he said.
Mr. Kriski rushed home to evacuate his girlfriend and three kids. Luckily, the wind shifted yet again, away from his home. “It moved so fast,” he marveled.
Remarks about the speed of the fire were a frequent refrain from frontline reporters.
“One second you see it a mile away and in a matter of minutes it’s right next to you,” said KABC-TV reporter Carlos Granda. “This thing just moved.”
For Mr. Granda, the most frightening moment was, however, when he could not see the fire. Last Thursday Mr. Granda was driving from Lake Arrowhead. There were tall trees on either side of the narrow, winding road. The fog was so thick, his crew had to stop the truck, all the while knowing the fire could trap them without warning.
“It was white-out conditions, we couldn’t see a yellow line on the road,” Mr. Granda said. “It’s the most frightening thing we’ve ever done.”
For KTLA chopper reporter Jennifer York, the fires were less frightening than frustrating. During the 1993 fires that swept through Malibu, Ms. York remembered seeing flames licking the boots of her cameraman, who hung out the door as smoke poured into the chopper.
Up In the Air
Now, post-9/11, flight restrictions by the Federal Aviation Administration require her to stay above 6,000 feet. Last week she hovered serenely above the chaos, unbothered by the smoke or shifting winds below.
Still, there was one advantage to being in the air during the wildfire story: big-picture clarity. Ms. York could tell exactly where the fire had been, where it was and where it was going, street by street.
“Being accurate helps to calm people,” she said. “I don’t want to sensationalize. I want to show the big picture. So it’s not like [when] you turn on the TV and its an image from the ground and there’s all these flames.”
Like many of the reporters covering the fires, she occasionally provided customized reporting for those in dire need of information. “We had somebody called frantic and begging to show a specific neighborhood, so we did it,” she said.
In San Diego, where the worst tragedy of the week occurred when at least 11 residents died after they were unable to evacuate before a fire reached their communities, local independent station KUSI-TV broke out a street map to show viewers where the fire was going.
“We’ve gone down to the basics with this thing,” said Mike McKinnon Jr. station VP. “People appreciate that.”
By the end of the week, the fires were dying down. Due to a cold front and rain, only one uncontained fire remained.
Jose Rios, VP of news for KCOP in Los Angeles, summed up the week: “Wildfire is a scary thing,” he said. “It’s bigger than anybody.”