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A crew from FOX26 in Fresno set out to document the progression of last year’s Creek Fire from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. to air for the 10 p.m. newscast. But the immense smoke caused the sky to turn pitch black by 3 p.m. Photo contributed by KMPH

published on June 17, 2021 - 2:54 PM
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With fire season already encroaching, news teams are receiving special training to aid in their coverage.

Cal Fire annually approaches news teams across the state to participate in fire training. The training is especially important because under California law, evacuation in emergency areas does not apply to journalists.

Jenna Liston and Liz Gonzalez from FOX26 in the Central Valley both say covering fires is all about mutual respect between news crews and Cal Fire — informing the public while allowing firefighters to do their job.

Jon Heggie, Cal Fire battalion chief, said the annual training benefits the media by offering ways the crews can do their job effectively and safely without interfering with firefighters. The annual training is offered to news outlets throughout the state, and training days are finished in June.

“Really some of the big things are a little bit of fire behavior education and understanding where you can park and where to be to get a good shot and not interfere with fire operations,” Heggie said.

Where news crews park their car can determine whether they’re able to escape safely, and how fire engines can access the fire.

“Fires are extremely dangerous and can change course in a moment. And really having their situational awareness is imperative for them to be successful and to be safe,” Heggie said.

Gonzalez said Cal Fire trained them to “keep their head on a swivel,” because fires can move at a moment’s notice.

These small, yet important aspects are important for moments of adrenaline, wanting to get the right camera shots, talk to the right people and get the right details, she said.

“It is thrilling and it is nerve wracking, but at the same time you’re reminded that you have a really big responsibility to one, reassure people so they don’t panic about what’s happening. But two, also to just inform them about whether they are in danger, their property’s in danger, their livestock is in danger — it’s a really big responsibility,” Gonzalez said.

The fire training teaches reporters about being aware of their surroundings and what to expect.

Making sure they’re out of the way of firefighters is the most important thing as reporters, she said.

“That almost goes without saying — you need to let them do their job, while they recognize that we are also there to do our job so I think there’s a big mutual respect there,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said she covered the aftermath of the fire more than the ongoing blaze, and she said she was tasked with striking a balance — showing the impacts and destructive nature of fires, while also keeping in mind that news anchors and reporters are airing someone’s livelihood.

“You have to try to cover it as tastefully as possible,” Gonzalez said.

Some reporters’ fire coverage went beyond the actual training. They aired their drive up in the mountains on Facebook Live so that evacuated residents could see their property — whether it survived the fire or not.

She said that some people describe the media as sensationalistic, but she finds responsibility in doing a job that captures the damage, yet tells the story of real people’s livelihood.

Gonzalez said that the training is helpful to share the dangers reporters face while covering stories during fire season — especially for those who have never covered a wildfire, like Liston.

Prior to Liston’s move to California, she didn’t have a lot of experience covering fires. Originally from the Midwest, it was a whole new game covering the Creek Fire, she said.

The fire training teaches reporters to wear long sleeves and pants if they can, and shoes with fire-resistant soles so they don’t burn themselves while walking. Masks are also important to protect their lungs. But situational awareness is an invaluable skill.

“It was a lot of eye-opening information as far as how far we should push our limits when covering something like that, and safety is first,” Liston said.

Liston’s first fire she covered was the Creek Fire, and in the early days, no one quite yet knew how devastating it would be. The crew set out to record the progression of what the fire looked like from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. before going back and editing the footage to air at 10 p.m.

“As the day progressed on, the sky got darker, the flames started coming up around us,” Liston said.

“We were so far back at one point that the U.S. Forest Service was like, ‘Hey, we’re going to wrap things up and head out just because the fire is closing in on us,’” Liston said.

She said it became pitch black at about 3 p.m.

The safety personnel told the news crew that they couldn’t leave because of the dangers of the fire that was closing in.

“And we don’t have service, we don’t have any way to communicate with our station or our families or friends that we’re out here,” Liston said.

Eventually a firefighter told the news crew that they would have a 15-minute break between the fire jumping, and they were able to get out of the area. They drove with fire on either side of them to get to China Peak, where about 50 people had been rescued.

She described being able to get out as a miracle situation.

“It was just the craziest day I’ve ever worked in my life, and we still managed to get something up on our 10 o’clock news cast,” Liston said.

For the Creek Fire, people were depending on that information to know when to evacuate, if they should. People’s homes and livestock were on the line during the fire season.

The Central Valley is entering fire season this year in an extreme drought, and news crews are expecting a more hectic fire season.

“It’s a huge responsibility, I definitely don’t take it lightly,” Liston said.

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