Southern California Stations Cover Wildfires via Multiple Platforms

KFMB Reporter Larry Himmel Covers Destruction of His Own Home

TV stations in Southern California are covering the series of wildfires that are ravaging the area across multiple media platforms.

To residents’ relief, winds were dying down Tuesday, but humidity remained low and plant life dry -- unfortunately, ideal conditions for a blazing fire. “It’s getting better, but it’s still dry as can be out there,” said Jose Rios, vice president of news for KTTV Los Angeles.

Stations are largely skipping regular programming to keep viewers on top of the story. Rios said the Fox affiliate has been going live for 12-13 hours at a clip, adding that Monday saw news on from 4:30 a.m. until around 5 p.m., while Tuesday’s coverage started around 4 a.m.

Several news directors are too busy to talk at the moment -- “We’re up to our eyeballs right now,” said one -- but many are pooling resources to best capture the breaking news.

One particularly heartbreaking report came from KFMB San Diego, where reporter Larry Himmel did a standup as his house was reduced to embers.

“That was our garage,” he said as he pointed to the house he lived in for 25 years. “Our living room over there … our porch … bedroom … This was a living hell coming over the hill.”

Himmel, a reporter for the CBS affiliate, said he had lived in the house for 25 years, thanked firefighters for letting him up to see the aftermath and talked of his attempts to save it, with the video showing a garden hose in the foreground and the blazing shell of the house in the background.

KFMB won awards for its coverage of 2003 wildfires that had some broadcasters taking to their station roofs with hoses to stay on the air as their own homes were threatened or destroyed. But, somewhat ironically, KFMB was also fined by the Federal Communications Commission because not all of that emergency coverage was closed-captioned.

Stations have also been using their digital channels, such as KNBC’s News Raw on channel 4.4, and Web sites for round-the-clock coverage.

KCBS Los Angeles is offering several slide shows from different areas and an online poll asking users if they’re ready to evacuate, while KABC is providing live streams from multiple hotspots. KGTV San Diego’s is pointing users toward the nearest evacuation shelter.

Their newsrooms overworked and overtired, stations are also tapping viewers to offer their testimony, video and photos. KNBC is featuring a seven-part series of “viewer images.” And “Share your wildfire photos” invites, which clocked some 2 million page views yesterday.

But Rios said wildfires aren’t exactly ideal for amateurs to shoot. “Some of the photos are good,” he added, “but if someone’s in a great position to shoot, they’re probably getting the hell out.”

Commenting on the efforts of broadcasters to cover the fires, National Association of Broadcasters president David Rehr said Tuesday: “It is unfortunate that it sometimes takes a disaster of the magnitude of the Southern California fires to remind people of local broadcasting's day-in and day-out commitment to serving the public interest."