By: M.L. Stein
Reporters, photographers recount personal brushes with the flames sp.
TWO WEEKS OF massive brush fires in Southern California drew all-out newspaper coverage, often by reporters and photographers whose homes were destroyed or threatened by the raging inferno that caused damage estimated at more than $700 million.
Several journalists were in danger, and at least two were injured at the scene of the fires.
About 23,000 people were evacuated from Laguna Beach, one of the worst-hit areas. An estimated 1,084 homes were damaged or destroyed, three people were killed, and 67 firefighters and dozens of residents were injured as the blazes roared through six counties, engulfing about 160,000 acres.
At one point, 14 different fires were sweeping through brushland. Nov. 2, the day after the media reported that the week-long fires were under control, a new firestorm ripped across the Santa Monica Mountains to Malibu, which includes the beach “Colony,” home of movie stars and other rich and famous residents. Hundreds of people fled their homes, one died and at least five suffered burns. Almost the entire city was evacuated.
The Los Angeles Times assigned more than 400 writers, editors, photographers and graphics specialists from its metropolitan, Orange County, San Fernando Valley and Ventura County staffs to the story.
Like other dailies in the area, the Times opened up pages for stories and photos, many of them in color.
The Times’ total press run Oct. 28 was increased by 65,000 copies. Circulation employees delivered 400,000 papers to racks and retail outlets in the Los Angeles Basin as well as to relief centers and shelters in fire-stricken areas. The Times also donated $50,000 to relief efforts.
Gary Jarlson, a copy editor at the Times’ Orange County edition, lost his Laguna Beach home, which contained the stored belongings of Kim Murphy, the paper’s Cairo, Egypt, correspondent. Deputy managing editor Karen Wada; metro copy desk chief Clark Stevens; Karen Klein, editor of the San Gabriel Valley edition; and environmental writer Marla Cone were evacuated from their homes.
Times metro editor Craig Turner attributed the scope and speed of the paper’s coverage to an electronic system whereby reporters were able to exchange information with colleagues in other fire zones.
“This way, readers in particular parts of the Southland were able to learn what was happening in their area and other places too,” Turner said.
Nov. 4, the Times ran a full page of “personal stories” of its reporters and photographers at fire locations. Jesse Katz told of helping a young couple carry belongings from their doomed home and fleeing with them.
James Rainey, after evacuating his aged parents from their Malibu home, where he grew up, took them to his house. Later, he returned to find the Malibu home intact in the midst of a half dozen charred dwellings.
Photographer Bob Carey lamented missing a particular shot.
“I saw a guy running out of his house with a surfboard. I would have loved to have had that picture,” he wrote.
At the Orange County Register, which focused mainly on the famed artists’ colony that is Laguna Beach, 75 staffers a day were assigned to the fire, which threatened other cities in the county.
“It blew out our front page,” managing editor Ken Brusic said. Page one Oct. 28 carried a 230-point type banner “INFERNO,” a map showing Sou-thern California fires, a three-quarter-page color aerial photo of a fire-ravaged section of Laguna Beach and a guide to inside sidebars.
Among the sidebars in the Register and other newspapers were lists of phone numbers and places that fire victims could call or go for assistance. Brusic said the Register’s coverage was helped greatly by use of assistant assignment editor Terry Wimmer’s Laguna Beach home as a “command center” for the paper.
“Terry was the editor at the scene and he did a terrific job,” Brusic said.
In the field, the Register, as other papers did, relied heavily on cellular phones and motorcycle couriers.
Fifteen Register staffers, including editor Tonnie Katz, live in Laguna Beach. Their homes were spared but just barely. Photographer David Caballero rescued Katz’ dog from her house.
Another Register photographer, David Yoder, was hospitalized briefly after a hot cinder blew into his eye. Wearing a patch, he resumed shooting on his release. Lensman Mark Rightmire received treatment for a cut leg.
Assigned to the fire during her first week at the paper, reporter Rosalva Hernandez fell off a roof while interviewing a homeowner hosing it down.
“She got up and went back to her reporting,” Brusic said.
John Walsh, the Register’s vice president/circulation, said single-copy sales jumped 12,000 the first day of the fire and dipped only slightly from that figure the next two days.
Delivery to 1,900 subscribers was stymied for several hours the first day because carriers could not get through barricaded roads, Walsh said.
“We eventually got 900 of them to Turtle Rock [a neighborhood in Irvine near Laguna Beach] but in the case of Laguna, there often were no homes left to deliver them [to],” Walsh recounted.
One subscriber was living in his car and got the paper delivered to him there when Laguna Beach opened up to traffic, he said. Two hundred copies were handed out free at shelters.
Two days running, the front page of the Los Angeles Daily News was given over entirely to the fire.
“Basically, we put the entire metro staff on the story,” assistant managing editor Ron Kaye said. “There’ll be a ton of overtime.”
Reporter Suzan Bibisi grabbed all that she could from her house in Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley as flames crept toward it. The house survived.
Columnist D.J. Fulford, who lives in Altadena, one of the major hot spots, was awakened by a call from a neighbor, who asked, “Have you looked out your back window?”
“When I looked out,” Fulford wrote later, “I saw hell coming down the hill.”
With the help of her boyfriend, she loaded her car and sped away.
“It’s still loaded,” Fulford disclosed in her column, though her house remained standing.
“After this scare, I almost feel like keeping it that way.”
At the San Diego Union-Tribune, the fire came on top of two murderous rampages by different gunmen in El Cajon, near the Mexican border.
The paper’s fire coverage was concentrated mainly in Laguna Beach and North San Diego County.
“We [editors] had a meeting and decided to have people at the scene at all times,” assistant metro editor Irene Jackson said. Bruce Bigelow, usually a science writer, was pressed into service as the principal rewrite person.
“He did great,” Jackson said. “At a time like this, you need someone who can handle a lot of stuff from a lot of different sources and not get rattled.”
Oct. 28, the Union-Tribune featured above the fold a six-column photo of a lone bicyclist riding down a Laguna Beach street of gutted homes.
“That photo said it all,” Jackson exclaimed.
The Riverside Press-Enterprise went up eight pages for its coverage and devoted six pages to color.
“Business writers, feature writers ? they all were sent out with other reporters,” managing editor Mel Opotowsky said.
Big-city dailies were not alone in pulling out all the stops in reporting the fires. Several smaller papers also turned in stellar performances.
The Ventura Star-Free Press opened up three pages every day of the disaster “with lots of color and lots of overtime,” managing editor Joe Howry said.
Some of the 12 staff members on the story had scary experiences, he related.
Photographer Victoria Sayer Pearson along with firefighters was trapped by onrushing flames after she climbed a hill to get a better overall view of the destruction. They took refuge on a roof of a ranch house.
“The fire got within about 30 yards of us before other firefighters beat it back,” Pearson said. “It was pretty exciting.”
A Star-Free Press reporter-photographer team, Greg Mansfield and Kaison Kim, became separated in the smoke and confusion. Unable to find Kim, Mansfield drove Kim’s car out of the area. Kim was found later by another staffer with a car.
The Star-Free Press’ smaller competition, the Oxnard Press-Courier, also threw virtually its entire staff into the story.
“There were long hours,” editor Karen Magnuson said. “We juggled shifts so people would be rested to go out again. I couldn’t have been happier with staff performance. It’s times like this that journalists show their true colors. For a paper our size, I believe we did as good, if not better, than any of our competitors. We don’t usually use color inside but the photography was so outstanding that we wanted to showcase it.”
Managing editor Steve Marble of the Daily Pilot in Orange County said, “We took every last person in the newsroom and threw them on the story.”
Pilot display advertising manager Michael Fletcher was meeting with a customer at the office in Costa Mesa when a secretary told him, “Laguna’s on fire.”
That’s where Fletcher lives.
He and two other sales reps who live there, Nancy Helmbold and Laura Bodet, could not get to Laguna Beach because of blocked roads so they borrowed a friend’s boat.
Fletcher, who wrote about the experience in the Pilot, described the Laguna fire scene as “like a scene from Apocalypse Now.”
The trio, with the boat owner, anchored 150 yards off the Laguna beach and attempted to raft to shore. They ended up swimming part of the way when the raft capsized.
When Fletcher eventually reached his home, the roof was aflame. But he managed to save most of the house, using a water hose and “all the liquids in the house ? milk, orange juice, tomato juice and beer . . . and shovels and machetes.”
Reader reaction to the fire coverage was not tabulated, but reporters, photographers, rewrite people and others got unanimous raves from editors interviewed by E&P.
Howry of the Star-Free Press appeared to sum up their feelings when he said, “It always amazes me how everybody seems to shine on a big story. There is nothing like it to promote teamwork. The mission is so clear that, by and large, everyone does their best work.”