Local Stations Bring Wildfire Story Home

Oct 28, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Among the most memorable images from last week’s devastating wildfires in Southern California was KFMB reporter Larry Himmel, reporting from in front of his house as it burned to the ground.
In a later televised report from the ruins of his home, Mr. Himmel told viewers if their house had burned down and they hadn’t returned to the remains yet, “It’s going to be a sight—no matter how much you are prepared for it—beyond grief and comprehension.” Then, he added, “And you thank God you’re alive and go on with your life and live your life without so much clutter.”
Mr. Himmel’s report reminds us why local news coverage—at its best—is so important: Because it’s the local TV stations that are part of the community.
Breaking into broadcasts on Sunday, Oct. 21, Richard Doutré Jones, VP and general manager of Entravision-owned San Diego Fox affiliate XETV-TV, interrupted football and baseball coverage to report on the fires.
“I had to return to about 150 e-mails wanting me dead,” he said. “People thought we were making it up.”
However, he received apologies from the writers of those e-mails after they were evacuated from their homes.
Daunting continuous coverage caused fatigue to set in for both reporters and anchors.
Phyllis Schwartz, executive VP of news, promotion and original content for the NBC Station Group and acting general manager of NBC affiliate KNSD-TV, said her staff set up nap centers with air mattresses in offices in the newsroom.
Also intimidating for Ms. Schwartz’s crew was the on-site reporting.
“When these folks go out in the field and cover, it’s physically debilitating for them,” she said.
Brutal Santa Ana winds whipped up against reporters in the field, who had to deal with seven different fires in San Diego County.
“The scope of it is unimaginable,” Mr. Jones said. “And we already went through this in 2003.”
The fires in 2007 were four years almost to the day after the 2003 San Diego Cedar fires, which had a lot of GMs feeling déjà vu.
“Everyone had this angst, tense feeling” about the first reports of this year’s fires, Ms. Schwartz said.
But both Mr. Jones and Ms. Schwartz, as well as Derek Dalton, VP/general manager of McGraw-Hill-owned ABC affiliate KGTV VP, couldn’t say enough good things about the resource sharing within stations and even between stations.
Mr. Dalton said local reporters were battling fatigue and running on adrenaline solely to serve the community.
“We’re all a bunch of competitive beasts,” Ms. Schwartz said, but that wasn’t the case during fire coverage as everyone came together to help.
“It reminded me of an old ‘M*A*S*H’ episode in some way,” she said.
“This wasn’t competition so much as it was just trying to get the latest word to everyone,” said Michael McKinnon Jr., general manager of McKinnon Broadcast-owned independent station KUSI-TV.
However the reporters covering the fire weren’t removed from their own community, as worry about losing one’s own home—mdash;as happened to Mr. Himmel of Midwest Television-owned CBS affiliate KFMB—mdash;wasn’t far from anyone’s mind.
Added to YouTube on Monday, Oct. 22, the clip of Mr. Himmel reporting in front of his blazing house had been viewed more than 230,000 times in five days.
“That was our garage. The living room over there, the porch,” Mr. Himmel, decked out in goggles, mouth-covering scarf and heavy jacket, said as he pointed at the still-flaming residence.


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