DENVER—With Colorado facing its worst wildfire season in a decade, teams of reporters deployed around the state say they’re only now starting to contain the story.
But as dozens of television, radio, and print journalists enter their third week of taking on at least 10 wildfires currently burning in the state, even longtime fire reporters say the logistics and sheer size of the blazes have been hard to overcome.
“We spent the first two days of the High Park fire [near Fort Collins] just trying to decide on which hashtag everyone should use for fire-related tweets,” said veteran Longmont Times-Call reporter Josh Levinson, as he wrapped up another 10-hour shift for which he was paid no overtime. “We were totally unprepared for wildfires of this magnitude.”
The fire coverage started small earlier this month in isolated reports buried deep in Colorado newscasts and newspapers. But fueled by press releases and whipped up by strong gusts of social media crowdsourcing, the wildfires have quickly swept through the state’s news cycle.
Officials estimate the fires now cover 38 percent of the state’s front pages and a full two-thirds of local newscasts.
However, editors and producers around Colorado said they’ve been able to put the resources and the manpower needed to get the upper hand on the wildfires. They pointed to a number of recent efforts, including an unprecedented multi-page, full-color special pullout section in Sunday’s Denver Post, complete with detailed maps, photos, and a column from Vincent Carroll.
Meanwhile, last week KUSA-TV unveiled their state-of-the-art 9News FireWatch Action Command Center, bringing the station’s weather, breaking news, and the “9 Wants To Know” in-depth teams under a unified command structure.
“Before a week ago, if you had told me I’d be working on a major story with [traffic reporter] Amelia [Earhart], I would have resigned by the end of the day,” said 9News Chief Meteorologist Kathy Sabine. “But once I saw the terrifying power of these fires, and also how they could win me a fifth regional Emmy, suddenly all our petty rivalries seemed pretty meaningless.”
Government officials have also been quick to respond. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said Saturday that more than 70 percent of the nation’s wildfire public information officers have been deployed to Colorado.
But with newsrooms already spread thin, media scholars said that any additional fires that sprout up could stretch reporters and photographers to the breaking point.
“There’s a good chance that the media could leave some fires completely uncovered for days at a time,” said Poynter Institute senior fellow James Saunders. “I’m scared just thinking about it.”
And even when the media are able to bring fire coverage under control, Saunders said, flare-ups will almost certainly continue throughout the summer — from sensationalized TV news “investigations” trying to scare everyone into thinking fake firefighters will loot their homes to a week-long series of Colorado Matters interviews exploring in mind-numbing detail how the fires might affect aspen tree reproduction rates.
“To stamp out all this fire coverage for good,” Saunders said, “the only thing we can do now is pray for rain and the start of the Broncos season.”
By: Nick Tarine