|Freelance journalist Jane Braxton Little in a burned forest. Her small California town and her office were destroyed by the 2021 Dixie Fire. Photo: Kim James.
Inside Story: On the Front Lines, When Wildfires Turn Personal
Journalist Jane Braxton Little’s wildfire reporting was awarded Second Place for Beat Reporting (Small) in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 22nd Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment. Judges said of the project: “Jane's first-person account of the destruction of her hometown of Greenville, California, put her heartbreak in her prose without losing sight of her mission as a journalist. On all levels, it is an outstanding body of work." SEJournal recently caught up with Braxton Little by email. Here is the conversation.
SEJournal: How did you get your winning story idea?
Jane Braxton Little: Over much of my career I have reported on fire, both as an essential element in most forests across the western United States and as an increasingly destructive force to forests as well as adjacent communities. When the Dixie Fire erupted in July 2021 the story became painfully personal. Greenville, my adopted hometown, was destroyed along with nearly one million acres of forestlands. I wrote about this for TomDispatch and others. When the SEJ contest guidelines were published, I realized that I had five stories that fell within the eligible time frame that would qualify for the beat category: two for Scientific American, one for CalMatters and two for TomDispatch. Although it’s a challenging category for a freelancer, I put together an entry. I was delighted to be awarded second place.
SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the pieces and how did you solve that challenge?
Braxton Little: Two of the five stories were written and published before the Dixie Fire. The challenge was writing the other three. One was in process; two were post-fire. During my five weeks of evacuation, I conducted interviews from a variety of temporary bedrooms and porches. I wrote large sections from one host’s bathroom floor. The real duress began after we were allowed to return home.
Our home survived the Dixie Fire but Greenville’s entire business district was gone, including my journalism office — books, notebooks, computer. We had intermittent electricity at home but no internet, no landlines and sketchy cell phone service. To complete those three magazine assignments I routinely drove a 50-mile round trip for internet and telephone in borrowed office space. These trips often took several hours due to the extensive post-fire roadwork. Without a gas station closer than 50 miles, I had to gauge my travel to be near available gasoline when the tank got low. Otherwise, I would be completely without the tools to research and file stories.
‘Adrenaline has carried me through many
challenges in research, writing and filing
stories. This was different; this was life.’
— Jane Braxton Little
Every journalist copes with make-shift conditions and stress. For me, the trauma of losing a town was a significant additional factor. Adrenaline has carried me through many challenges in research, writing and filing stories. This was different; this was life.
SEJournal: What most surprised you about your reporting?
Braxton Little: I have seldom written magazine stories in the first person. I had never before written about myself. It was difficult to write the two stories told from that perspective — counter to everything I had learned over 40 years as a journalist. So I was utterly surprised by the reaction to them. Although they were well-researched and documented, readers responded to the very personal narrative. I did not expect that.
SEJournal: How did you decide to tell the series and why?
Braxton Little: Climate disasters are coming for all of us. Some will be floods, famine and drought. For me, it was fire that delivered disaster firsthand. This was an opportunity to put the reality of climate change in stark and personal terms. No self-respecting journalist would let that pass.
SEJournal: Does the issue covered in your story have a disproportionate impact on people of low income, or people with a particular ethnic or racial background? What efforts, if any, did you make to include perspectives of people who may feel that journalists have left them out of public conversation over the years?
Braxton Little: My town is a gritty working-class community with a high percentage of Native Americans. The fire did not discriminate by race or class: We were equally burned out. Including people with diverse perspectives was simply a matter of talking to my neighbors.
SEJournal: What lessons have you learned from your story or project?
‘A first-person story is not
generally appropriate, but when the
journalist has experienced disaster firsthand,
including that perspective is compelling.’
— Jane Braxton Little
Braxton Little: Readers respond to personal accounts. A first-person story is not generally appropriate, but when the journalist has experienced disaster firsthand, including that perspective is compelling. And when the disaster is caused by climate change, it’s a very effective way to convey data that readers might otherwise overlook.
SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?
Braxton Little: Heed evacuation warnings. Journalists cannot tell their stories from burn centers or the grave. Do not be shy about asking for favors such as borrowing a desk, floor space or internet access. Find a way to vent. It’s hard to write from a place of total anguish.
SEJournal: Could you characterize the resources that went into producing your prize-winning reporting (estimated costs, i.e., legal, travel or other; or estimated hours spent by the team to produce)? Did you receive any grants or fellowships to support it?
Braxton Little: Two of the five stories in my entry cost me enormous personal capital. I lost my office along with the entire business district of my town and 800 family homes. I spent hundreds of miles on the road to access such common tools as the internet, electricity and telephone. I received no grants or reimbursement for anything, including gasoline.
SEJournal: Is there anything else you would like to share about this series or environmental journalism that wasn’t captured above?
Braxton Little: I am so surprised by this award and so honored. Thank you for following up with these questions.
Jane Braxton Little is an independent journalist reporting on natural resource and climate change issues for such publications as Scientific American, Yale E-360, National Geographic and Bay Nature. From her base in California’s northern Sierra Nevada, she has a direct window onto forest fire as it morphs from essential natural force to climate-driven inferno. Who knew that it would become painfully personal when the 2021 Dixie Fire destroyed her office and town?
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 22. 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.