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December 6, 2016
|An aerial shot of the wildfires in Sevier County taken from a Tennessee National Guard helicopter on Nov. 29, 2016. (Photo by Staff Sgt. William Jones)|
Issue Backgrounder: Covering Wildfire Is No Longer Seasonal Work
By Joseph A. Davis
The devastating wildfire that killed at least 14 around Gatlinburg, Tenn., was very unusual — but may also represent the new normal. In coming years, environmental journalists can expect to be covering wildfires in places and at times they are not used to.
Yes, climate change has a lot to do with it: that's why it's a new normal. There used to be such a thing as a wildfire "season" during the dry months of summer and early fall, when heavily forested areas like the Rockies, California and the Northwest would burn. This year we saw fires in April and November.
The Gatlinburg fire was just one of a spate of November fires that came as the Southeast was stricken by an unusual drought. That region doesn't usually get many fires at that time of year.
Journalists have gotten used to wildfire in California or Idaho. But wildfire stories today will flare up in Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Florida, Texas or South Dakota.
Some general tips on wildfire coverage:
- You will be more effective if you prepare ahead. That means finding and connecting with likely sources.
- Most importantly, connect with your local emergency responders. Fire, police and medevac services will be active in a wildfire, and having those phone numbers and online links ahead of time is key. Scanners help if you already know the right frequencies. Form relationships with people at these agencies who are able and willing to talk to the news media.
- In larger wildfires, state agencies are essential sources, especially because they are often on state land. Most states have some sort of wildfire agency.
- Finally — or first of all — journalists need to stay safe when covering wildfires. Follow instructions from firefighting authorities. Don’t disrupt firefighting. Don’t use drones (they can interfere with air attack). Know your escape route. Evacuate when advised. Stay in touch with your newsroom. Keep your car fueled up and your phone charged. Anna King’s piece for the NW News Network offers some wisdom from an experienced journalist.
- National Interagency Fire Center: The NIFC is a huge convergence center in Boise, Idaho, for anyone seeking real-time and comprehensive wildfire information. It is a collection of information systems you will want to explore, but it is also a place online to go immediately for reliable up-to-the-minute news. It links together federal, regional, state and other fire agencies. Most important for journalists is its National Fire News page, which gives a good overview of major active fires (and past-year statistics for your editor). Another strategic overview is the daily Incident Management Situation Report. NIFC operations are tracked through Geographic Area Coordination Centers, and it’s a good idea to plug into the one for your region. The main NIFC external affairs hotline is 208-387-5050, and there’s a larger list of agency PIO phones here.
- InciWeb: A fire-event tracking database that is updated on a time scale of minutes to hours and gives a broad overview of most important fires. Technically, it is “all-risk,” but it focuses on fires. It is run by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, which sets firefighting standards for federal and nonfederal agencies.
- Federal Land Management Agencies: The federal government owns and manages a lot of land subject to wildfires, and each of the agencies has firefighting resources and offers information journalists can use. Key agencies include the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. These agencies typically are organized into smaller administrative units specific to a unit of land like a park, forest or state. Get to know the people who brief media at land management units near you.
- U.S. Drought Portal: Several federal agencies work hard to track the drought that typically is an underlying condition for wildfires. The U.S. Drought Portal brings together several regular information sources, including the U.S. Drought Monitor and monthly wildfire risk maps.
- NOAA/NWS Fire Weather Outlooks: The National Weather Service issues a series of outlooks for various regions across the country evaluating weather conditions that could promote (or discourage) fires. The time scales range from a single day to more than a week.
- The U.S. Forest Service Active Fire Mapping Program: A good source of map-based information about wildfires nationwide, especially large ones. The information comes from several satellite sources.
- AirNow: An air pollution advisory system developed jointly by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies. One cool thing they offer is forecasts and near-real-time reports on smoke pollution from wildfires. Most of the information is map-based.
Most states have some agency responsible for fighting wildfires or coordinating firefighting efforts. They are often a division of the state’s forest-management agency. Some of the bigger ones:
- California: Cal Fire
- Idaho: Idaho Fire Information, Idaho Department of Lands Fire Management and Idaho Forest Products Commission.
- Oregon: Oregon Department of Forestry Fire Program and Wildfire blog, plus Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center.
- Florida: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Wildland Fire program.
- Utah: Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands wildfire program.
- Arizona: Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management wildfire program.
There are lots more. Find the ones that are in your state or relevant to your story.
Other and nongovernmental resources
- Wildfire Today is a reputable and reliable private wildfire news and opinion site based in South Dakota, with very timely information about active fire situations. It often has good maps. Much of the site’s content is posted quickly to Twitter at @wildfiretoday.
- Fire Info Girl (@FireInfoGirl) is a Twitter feed with lots of timely news and context about breaking fire situations. It is fast and reliable and works mostly by linking to other online information. Its operator is anonymous.
- Wildfire magazine is a great resource for everything but the breaking emergency stories about wildfire. It is published several times a year by the International Association of Wildland Fire.
- National Association of State Foresters is a professional group that focuses much attention on wildfire issues. They are interested in adequate funding for wildfire management. They are also a source of wildfire experts. Contact NASF Communications Director Amanda Cooke at email@example.com and 202-624-5417.
- Society of Environmental Journalists’ Reporters’ Toolbox on wildfires (includes list of experts).
- SEJ Conference Panel on wildfires, “Living with Fire: Wildfires and Forest Health.”
- Wildfire experts listed by (possibly institutionally self-promoting) Univ. of California-Davis, UCLA and Univ. of Washington.
- USFS Labs: Missoula Fire Sciences Lab and Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Lab.
Putting Wildfires in Context
If you are a journalist, your editor or producer probably thinks your job is to chase the fire engines. Though immediate emergencies always seem to get news priority, there are many really important wildfire-related issues that deserve deeper coverage. These are longer-term projects for when the fires are not burning:
- Residential development in fire-prone areas
- Improving fire-resistance of buildings and grounds
- Federal and state funding for fire management
- Fire suppression and “let-burn” policies
- Climate and drought causes of wildfire
- Insect and disease causes of wildfire
- Prescribed or controlled burns — why, when, where and how
- The relation of wildfire/suppression to forest ecosystem health
- Is fire behavior getting more extreme?
- The political, ideological and economic origins of wildfire policy debates
- Post-fire effects: floods, erosion, landslides, pollution
- Air-quality consequences of wildfires are more important than we think
Joseph A. Davis is director of SEJ’s WatchDog Project, and writes SEJournal Online’s Backgrounders and TipSheet columns.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 1, No. 6. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.
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