Calif. Publishers Battle Wildfire Flames

By: Joe Strupp

The raging wildfires in Southern California were not just big news for local newspapers last week, they were also a logistical headache as reporters and editors, as well as production workers and delivery crews, had to contend with the disaster’s effects on everything from evacuation of staffers’ homes to blocked delivery routes.

At the North County Times in Escondido, Calif., located in northern San Diego County, Managing Editor Rusty Harris said at least five of his staffers were forced to flee their homes because of the fires. About 90% of the paper’s 125 editorial employees have been involved in coverage. Some newspaper delivery routes were blocked, but no other disruptions or production problems had occurred.

Journalists in the field had received no additional safety training, but Harris said photographers receive regular training from local fire officials and keep fire jackets and other supplies in their vehicles. “Fires are nothing new for us out here,” he added. “We are prepared.”

For the Los Angeles Times, which has to keep tabs on all three area fires as a regional paper, the coverage required about two dozen reporters in the field, along with 10 to 15 support staff in the newsroom and more than a dozen photographers on the front lines, according to City Editor Sam Enriquez. “It is an ‘everybody in the pool’ story,” he told E&P. “The scale and geography is different (than most wildfires) because the fires are moving all over the place.”

As of late last week, the Times was planning to begin rotating reporters from the business and features staffs into coverage to give the news reporters some relief. No injuries or major damage had affected the paper or its employees, despite having no special training. “Everyone is taking cell phones and keeping them charged, with a change of clothes, water and bandanas,” Enriquez said. “We’ve been able to print and deliver on time.”

Nearly half of the newspaper’s 410 editorial employees worked on some aspect of the fires at The San Diego Union-Tribune. At least 25 U-T staffers had been evacuated, according to Editor Karin Winner. “People are coming in after they have been evacuated from their homes and are sitting down to write a story,” she said. At least two non-editorial employees had lost their homes in the blazes, but as of late last week no staffers had been injured.

U-T staffers who are part of the paper’s safety team are supplied with firefighting jackets, boots and fire masks. Many also have had fire training, but the majority have not, Winner said. About 15,000 customers did not receive newspapers on Oct. 26, the first day of the fires, but that has been the paper’s only major delivery disruption.

An ongoing series on Latino education had to be put on the back burner, so to speak, by the Orange County Register so a reporter for the series could cover the fires. “I’m trying to rotate people and put them on it for two days at a time,” said Projects Editor Joe Ames, who has up to three reporters and three photographers on the story each day.

At the Ventura County Star, County Editor Marty Bonvechio assigned 16 of her 22 reporters to fire coverage. “I had some scary calls from reporters who were on roads that were smoke-covered and could not find their way out,” Bonvechio recalled. “One person could not find a highway exit.”

Further east, at The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Editor Maria Devarenne said the paper had “several dozen” people on the coverage, even the business editor and the paper’s two baseball beat writers. While reporters have had enough basic supplies such as water, protective gear and cell phones, she reached out to several out-of-state television stations owned by Press-Enterprise parent company Belo for fire-retardant blankets that protect individuals from spreading flames.

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