Now Playing



Slow Burn

Covering fires isn’t just an assignment if your neighborhood is in flames. A writer looks back on 15 months of reporting from scorched earth.

Smoke billows from a Santa Rosa neighborhood destroyed by flames in October 2017.

 

Three days after my family evacuated from the fires that ravaged Sonoma County in October 2017, I went berserk. My wife and our three daughters were holed up at my sister-in-law’s house in Belmont. While the Yankees were battling the Astros in the playoffs, the news from up north kept getting worse: Eventually, 43 people were killed. I never felt more helpless in my life.

I had to get out of there and do something productive. So I donned my N95 mask and beelined for my car, where I made calls to interview area chefs about the volunteer cooking they were doing for victims and first responders. About 90 minutes later, I had reported an 800-word story for The Healdsburg Tribune, our hometown weekly. The story became the first of more than 30 pieces I wrote about the fires—articles for publications ranging from the weekly paper to CNN and about everything in between.

Inadvertently, I guess, it was my introduction to the fire beat. Mine weren’t dispatches from the front lines. Instead, I swore to focus on the other heroes—those who rose to the occasion to help neighbors, the people who committed acts of kindness in the face of such tragic destruction. To me, these were the tales that wouldn’t get any attention because they were the angles no one else would tell.

There was the free public health program set up to gauge the mental health of fire survivors; the spouse of a Cal Fire sergeant, who spent more than 60 consecutive days on containment duty; the family that rebuilt its winery leveled by the flames.

A year later, I was back at it. In November, the Camp Fire torched Paradise and killed more than 85 people along the way. Once again, I was furiously searching for stories of hope and compassion. (And, surprisingly, commerce: I recently reported an article about private fire insurance, which helped save dozens of celebrity homes in the Los Angeles area during the Woolsey Fire that torched more than 80 percent of the Santa Monica Mountains.)

As a group, these headlines have comprised some of the most challenging assignments of my life—even on a logistical level. It’s been difficult to get into burn zones, for example, and difficult to convince fire survivors to talk about experiences they’d rather forget. And because the tragedies have affected everyone equally, it has been superimportant (to me, at least) to keep coverage balanced across geographic, demographic, socioeconomic, gender and racial lines.

Working the fire beat has been an emotional challenge as well. With flames igniting in succession over the past 15 months, I’ve struggled to psych myself up for each round of reporting on devastation and loss. How much heartache can I bear to hear? How can I muster the energy to stay positive? These are the kinds of questions I ask myself repeatedly. I struggle even more when I consider that our family remains among the lucky ones. Why not us?

I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The work of reporting these stories has taught me a lot about humanity—and given me hope for the future at a time in history when things don’t always seem so hopeful. The first lesson: Humans really do come together in times of crisis. This is something I hadn’t witnessed firsthand since I lived in New York City during 9/11. It’s an uplifting sight to behold.

Gratitude goes a long way. I’ve witnessed thousands of people express sincere appreciation for help from others. Hundreds more have high-fived me for the reporting I’ve done. These thanks have fueled me, sustained me and inspired me to do more. Finally, stuff is never as important as you might think it is, especially if you still have your friends and family by your side.

It’s winter now, but next summer (and autumn) undoubtedly will bring more devastating sparks and the need for shedding light on the people and places affected by extreme acts of nature. When the embers fly again, I’ll be there with pen and steno pad in hand, ready to contribute new scenes to the ongoing narrative about this chapter of our history. To me, this is more than work. It’s life. It’s love. And it’s helping my community in the best way I know how.

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco 

Have feedback? Email us at letterssf@sanfranmag.com
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag