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News on the fire line

Stations in the West scramble to keep up with raging infernos 6/30/2002 08:00:00 PM Eastern

KNXV-TV Phoenix got caught between news-chopper leases when the summer fires began to rage early in the drought-stricken West. The lease ran out when helicopters were grounded last year following Sept. 11, and there was no point renewing them until they could fly again.

A new lease was negotiated when the restrictions were lifted, says News Director Bob Sullivan, but the chopper is still being outfitted and hasn't been available for fire coverage.

A story this big taxes not just resources but resourcefulness. So the station has hired a fixed-wing plane out of Albuquerque, N.M. "You make do. It keeps us in the game," Sullivan says. "The good news is that the plane flies so high it can go over the restricted airspace over the fire. The bad news is that we don't get the close-ups."

From any view, broadcasters agree, the visuals are as spectacular as the story is exhausting and demoralizing. Smoke from fires covering nearly 600 square miles has enveloped Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces, N.M., and even El Paso, Texas.

"We can see the smoke," says anchor Heidi Goitia, of KNAZ-TV, the Gannett-owned NBC affiliate in Flagstaff, Ariz. "This is as big as any fire any Arizona station has ever seen." KNAZ-TV is covering the fires in cooperation with co-owned KPNX(TV) Phoenix, using some equipment sent from other Gannett stations around the country.

Reporters, producers, camera operators and other personnel routinely work 18, 20 hours at a time, sleeping in crowded hotel rooms, microwave trucks, ENG vans or wherever else they can, sometimes in sleeping bags provided by the Forest Service. After several days, they're still reporting on destruction, evacuation and containment percentage still in single-digits.

After the unending fires in Colorado, says Mitch Jacob, news director at Meredith's KPHO-TV Phoenix, "we knew this thing had the potential to blow. We've pulled in folks from Las Vegas, Portland … every free-lancer available to us in northeast Arizona."

"We try to cover the news of the day," says Jacob. "But most of it does not make air. The fires leave very small holes for the news of the day. We're chasing things; we've got crews covering breaking news, but there are so many stories." Even the sensational story of exploding Ford Crown Victoria police cruisers has had to take a back seat to the Rodeo-Chediski fire threatening Show Low and Eagar.

In Colorado, fires spread over more than 200,000 acres through much of June. "This will be a long fire season for all the stations in the West," says KCNC-TV Denver News Director Angie Kucharski. "We don't usually get to this point in the wildfire season until July or early August.

"We had a particularly bad fire season two years ago, and, in the course of those fires, we retained a lot of information. Last fall and winter, we realized we weren't getting the moisture. We realized it was going to be dry, so we started planning for the fire season."

Stations need to prepare staffing, shifts, supplies and safety gear. "We ordered detailed maps, topographical maps months in advance." (Kucharski and KUSA-TV Denver News Director Patti Dennis share experiences and advice on the Poynter Institute's Website, Poynter.org.)

"We got through the first week of coverage," Kucharski says, "and started to get a sense that they were getting a handle on the fire. Then it erupted again. That's when you have to test the system. You can pace yourself for five to seven days. But when it's going to be 10 to 20 days, you have to pace yourself differently. As you do this, sometimes you make great decisions, sometimes you have to do a little course correction.

"The challenge is to be clear and specific regarding new threats and new information. You have to make sure the viewer understands the differences between breaking news and continuing coverage."

Meanwhile, the news executives say, the long, hot summer continues. "With a storm," says Jacob, "you know it's going to pass. A hurricane will hit and then move away. This thing is just charging ahead."

 

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