Sorrow in the Fire

Hosted by

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

One of the most traumatic things you can do as a reporter is cover a wildfire, not only because of the danger but because you're documenting the devastation that nature visits on defenseless, frightened human beings, many of whom lose everything they own to the flames.

The appropriate way to cover these infernos is to focus on people, and how they cope with loss and fear. About how they deal with the notion that they might themselves have been consumed by fire as swiftly as their possessions.

Without treading on their pain, you offer sympathy, even as you encourage them, gently, to share their experiences so that your readers might feel sympathy too. Your aim is simply to share their sorrow.

I tried to do that while covering the San Bernardino fire of October 2003 for the New York Times. "As the fire roared down the mountain in a rush of embers, ash and blinding light," I wrote, "Terry Ritter's only weapon, a narrow garden hose, suddenly seemed crushingly inadequate. A few minutes later… when the wind-driven sparks ignited the roof of his garage, the battle for his home of 34 years was all but over."

As he sifted through the smoking debris, Ritter, a carpenter, said he'd tried to put the fire out, but the wind was blowing the flames too hard.

"It just spread, man," he said. "It was nonstop."

Reporters must describe the fire itself, of course, the swath of its advance across the landscape, the dismal toll of destruction. But they should always come back to the people most affected.

Cable TV reporters and anchors don't always work that way. To them, raging wildfires are rich fodder for the kind of high-octane, grab-'em-by-the-throat, let's-go-to-war approach that, they hope, will keep viewers glued for hours to their sets, soaking up hyperbole, false drama and advertising.

Take Rick Sanchez last night on CNN. Sounding like a vacuous Top-40 radio disk jockey, he reveled in the excitement of the disaster, showing neither sincerity nor any noticeable concern for the people whose lives it has decimated.

I know that fires are compelling television. But TV anchors should stop shouting and posturing and settle instead for real, honest storytelling that enlightens and provides a context for people's emotions.

Local TV is doing somewhat better. Martin Miller and Greg Braxton reported in this morning's Los Angeles Times that local stations are devoting almost continuous live coverage to the fires.

They've cancelled most regular daytime programming, cut into advertising revenues and pushed newsrooms to their limits. "In a massive news effort not seen since a similarly devastating series of blazes four years ago, local TV stations broadcast a grimly familiar roll call of scenes," the Times said.

But the conditions are appalling, KNBC news director Bob Long told the paper, with reporters in goggles and face masks "trying to talk through all this smoke."

They're also dangerous. I remember running from flames twice, once while covering the Malibu fire of 1993 for the Santa Monica Outlook and again four years ago near Julian, in San Diego County, for the New York Times. A wall of fire marching on a hill will get your attention like nothing else.

On that first occasion, I was working with photographer Richard Hartog, whose BMW, packed with camera equipment, was parked in what suddenly became the path of the fire. We got to it just in time.

I see that Hartog, who now works for the L.A. Times, is back out there. Two days ago, the paper ran his beautifully composed picture of a 14-year-old surfer on Malibu beach, staring at an enormous cloud of smoke filling the radiant blue sky.

The boy appeared alone, dwarfed and powerless before the onslaught of the flames.

This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

Photo: Richard Hartog/Los Angeles Times



Nick Madigan