Wildfire a Key to Local Environmental Stories

June 22, 2011

The Wallow Fire in Arizona has been news for three weeks, but is vanishing from national headlines even while it is yet only 56% contained. It will be an important local story for many more months … or even years. As seasonal weather gets hotter and record droughts persist, wildfire will continue to be a major story in many media markets.

A large part of the job of covering wildfire (like the job of fighting it) can be done in the off-season. But during an incident, you may be called on for an all-out effort. Preparation and resources help.

Nationally, much of the coverage of major fires is left to the wire services, TV networks, and a few big national news organizations. But you will rarely learn from them the names of people whose homes the fire has destroyed or threatened. Or what flooding and wildlife loss may follow a fire. That is covered by local media or not at all.

If you are covering wildfires this summer, you may find more information on the federal InciWeb site than from the wires and cable nets. At least, Tuesday's InciWeb report includes an up-to-date map of the affected area (totalling 527,774 acres, which is about 1/10 of the acreage burned nationally in some typical seasons). It also tells you that there are 3,483 personnel committed to the fire (including 11 hotshot crews and 50 handcrews); that 1,551 residences have been threatened, 32 destroyed, and 5 damaged; that it is making use of 15 helicopters, 5 air tankers, 202 engines, 73 water tenders, and 19 bulldozers; the fact that the Greer evacuation has been lifted; the places where power has or hasn't been restored; the fact that Burned Area Emergency Response teams are already on the ground planning response to soil and vegetation destruction; and more.

That's just one of 192 incidents that InciWeb, an interagency hub, is tracking right now — one of which may be a story in your news-shed.

SEJ has compiled a large set of information resources to help you report on fire not only during the emergency stage but also during the prevention and recovery stages.

But even this toolbox may not include special treasures like the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory which some attendees at the 2010 SEJ Annual Conference got to tour.

One newsy facet of this year's fires has been speculation about how they may be connected to climate change. This may be perilous territory for journalists, since climate is a matter of longer-term averages, which makes it hard to connect any single fire or weather event to global warming. That has not stopped either researchers, political polemicists, or journalists from discussing the subject.