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Regional Interests

Wildfire journalism looks different in Oregon vs. California

Photographer Noah Berger captured this image of firefighter Chris Gerking, a Kings County battalion chief, monitoring a firing operation, where crews set ground fire to stop a wildfire from spreading, while battling the Dixie Fire in Lassen National Forest, Calif., on Monday, July 26, 2021.
Photographer Noah Berger captured this image of firefighter Chris Gerking, a Kings County battalion chief, monitoring a firing operation, where crews set ground fire to stop a wildfire from spreading, while battling the Dixie Fire in Lassen National Forest, Calif., on Monday, July 26, 2021.

Journalists covering wildfires in Oregon have very different kinds of access than their peers in California. In Oregon, journalists often can’t go behind fire lines and if they do, a fire official needs to be with them at all times. Under California law, journalists are able to move much more freely to get images and information from active wildfires.

We talk with two journalists about what all of this means in terms of public perception and accountability. April Ehrlich is a reporter for Jefferson Public Radio and the president of the Oregon chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Noah Berger is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the Associated Press and other outlets.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller, we start today with wildfires, not an update on any particular fire that’s burning right now. It’s a conversation about the access that reporters and photographers have to cover fires because that access varies widely depending on which state you’re in. In California, journalists can move pretty freely within zones that have been evacuated. In Oregon, they often aren’t allowed inside those zones and if they are, they have to stick with fire officials. So what does this mean for the kinds of information and images the public has access to? For more on wildfire journalism, I’m joined by April Ehrlich, Reporter with Jefferson Public Radio and the President of the Oregon Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists, and Noah Berger. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning Photographer for the Associated Press and other outlets. April and Noah, welcome to Think Out Loud.

April Ehrlich: Hi.

Noah Berger: Hey, Dave.

Miller: April, first, can you explain how Oregon’s current laws work regarding access to forest fires?

Ehrlich: Right now journalists can’t go past roadblocks without an escort. So if you are at a wildfire and there’s a roadblock and evacuation zone, you basically have to try to get a police officer or a firefighter to want to take you in, which they’re probably not going to.

Miller: What are the reasons for that?

Ehrlich: I think there are a lot of reasons. One is, from what we’ve heard from law enforcement groups, is that they don’t want people going in those zones and potentially putting themselves in danger. The other is that they are afraid of looting. When everybody evacuates a neighborhood, there’s a lot of empty homes and looting tends to occur. So I think those are the two big reasons why they don’t want just anybody going in there and they include Journalists among that group.

Noah, can you explain the way access works broadly in California?

Berger: Sure. California has a section of the penal code, 409.5 D, [in] which the penal code specifies that authorities can lock down an area and evacuate residents. Section D is an exclusion for Journalists, who are allowed into the zones except for a couple of small instances. That’s basically how our law works. So legally, with a legit press pass, you should be able to go through a checkpoint. You should be able to walk into a wall of flames if you wanted to. That’s how the law is structured here.

Miller: And in practice, when you go to cover a fire and you get to a roadblock, what happens?

Berger: It varies. This year has been very good. A lot of times the Sheriff’s manning the roadblocks, not fire officials. This year, they’ve been very welcoming and it’s been very easy to get in. I’m very outfitted. I’m fully dressed. I look like a firefighter when I’m out here with safety gear. My car is labeled AP Media, which helps.  But sometimes when they don’t want to let you in, they say, ‘No, you can’t go in there,’ and sometimes they’ll take 15 or 20 minutes. You get their Sergeant on the phone. You explain they’re in violation of the law by doing that. They’ll call fire officials and fire officials will say, yeah, you got to let them in. So it’s a mix.

Miller: And once you are in, once you’re past the roadblock into a place that has been at a Level 3  Evacuation order, are you fully on your own?

Berger: Yeah, you are. Which is wonderful. You can do whatever you want in here. For better or worse.

Miller: When you say “here”, my understanding is you’re covering the Dixie Fire right now.

Berger: Yes, I’m in Chester, which is fully evacuated right now.

Miller: So as you’re speaking, you’re in an evacuation zone?

Berger: Right.

Miller: April, in Oregon, I’m curious. We talked to you last year during the terrible fires around Labor Day where your house itself had been evacuated. What was your experience as a journalist?

Ehrlich: It’s interesting. Before that, I had mostly just had experience covering wildfires on the ground in California because I’m right on the Oregon-California border. We had some pretty bad fires in the previous couple of years. Then when I found myself literally in the middle of a wildfire having to evacuate and cover it at the same time. I was hitting roadblocks and I was like, you have to let me in, I’m a journalist. And they were like, no, we don’t. I don’t know what you’re talking about, because I didn’t even realize that that was the case. So that’s  when I became personally really passionate about this issue because I have experience going into these areas, into these zones, and being able to cover wildfires for people who want to know what’s happening in their community. I fully believe that we should have that right and people should have the right to be informed about what’s happening

Miller: In retrospect, how do you feel about heeding the evacuation orders, given that you weren’t able to then go past the roadblock later as a journalist?

Ehrlich: So that was another thing. When I was evacuated, once I left, I couldn’t go back in. So I was watching these videos and looking at photos that regular people were posting to Facebook. To me it was almost infuriating that if I had just stayed behind and waited, I may have been able to get more photos, more footage, more information than if I had actually heeded evacuation orders. Like you said, if I just ignored the orders, I may have been able to get the access I wanted in order to do my job.

Miller: Noah, what do you think the public could miss out on if reporters in Oregon don’t have the access to fires that reporters, photographers and other journalists in California do have access to? What aren’t we seeing and what aren’t we hearing?

Berger: It’s a good question. I think about that all the time. Well, the first thing, which is kind of what April said, the community finds out specific information, would be the first level. On a bigger level, seeing the photos in the on-the-ground reporting really drives home what fire looks like in a community in a way that statistics from the fire department doesn’t. That can spur action, making your home more fire resistant, not building in the wildlands interface, creating defensible space around your home, choosing a home based on something that has exit routes, unlike some of the mountain communities. So there are a lot of things that the public can get from seeing what that actually looks like.

Another level is, you see all these climate change stories nationally, and every photo of California, because you can’t get in anywhere else. So, I think there’s this California bias on climate change, that this is the only state that is having this, just from the images that are available.

Then the third level, I have a big respect for our fire crews. They do a wonderful job. Cal Fire here is phenomenal. But there is a level of holding crews accountable if something does go wrong, when a mistake was made, when a decision had consequences, that a qualified reporter on the ground could find out which you can’t do from official channels obviously. Or as easily.

Miller: Can you think of an example just from your time right now in Chester reporting the Dixie Fire, that you think that a bit of information that the public may not have access to if you weren’t there or if a reporter weren’t there?

Berger: In actuality, I probably won’t get into this too much. But I did just hear from a resident who thought that part of the problem yesterday was that  backfires, which are fires lit by firefighters, had jumped a containment line and caused it to spread. That’s something that does happen sometimes at fires. There are mistakes and that’s something that a reporter on the ground here would be able to hear about and investigate if they wanted to. You wouldn’t do that otherwise. I’m not making it one of the things you hear out there.

Miller: April, as I mentioned earlier, you’re the President of the Oregon Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists. That Chapter recently advocated for a bill in the Oregon Legislature, specifically about this issue. The bill died in committee. It didn’t go anywhere. What would it have done?

Ehrlich: It would have allowed journalists into areas where there’s a natural disaster [and] where there’s a roadblock because of a natural disaster, such as a wildfire. It would have allowed Journalists to go in there. There would have been an expectation that they would check in with the incident command, whoever is in charge of the situation, and they’d be going in there at their own risk.

Miller: One of the questions I’ve been wondering about is if the sometimes now squishy nature of who is a journalist, how that would affect everything we’re talking about here. April, do you think anybody should just be able to go up to a roadblock and say I’m an independent journalist. Let me go in?

Ehrlich: You’re right. It’s a really really sticky situation and something that comes up every time we have a bill that’s specific to Journalists. There are local governments and other groups that want us to specify who is a Journalist and that creates a bit of a trap for us. Personally, I don’t have a way to define journalists. I do believe that how we tackle this with this bill, which is to allow the police or whoever is at the roadblock to use their judgment, to look at somebody’s identification, look at where they work and let them in. I think that that’s the best way to go, for this.

Miller: Noah Berger, how do you think about this question? Obviously, you know, you work for the AP but there are plenty of people who are collecting important information for the public who don’t necessarily have that level of old fashioned legitimacy.

Berger: Sure, if I can have a long answer to this.

Miller: Okay.

Berger: I think about this all the time. So [in] California, I believe that we have too loose laws on this. Not the penal code, but in practice. I covered part of Australia in 2019 and their fire system in New South Wales is that you have to attend a two hour training, in person, put on by their fire service. Then you get a credential issued to you. You need to be sponsored by a media outlet and then you’re allowed access to fire zones. What we see in California is a lot of people being here who shouldn’t be here, and like April said, I don’t think it can be left to the people doing the roadblocks to make that determination. That’s just asking for trouble.

What I’m advocating for here, and I’ve been trying to get traction is, I think Cal-Fires should issue press credentials and it creates more accountability. It limits the people who shouldn’t be here who are here. In terms of defining ‘Journalist,’ I have some ideas not fully worked out in my head, but the first level would be a year sponsored by a major national organization or recognized organization. Second level would be that you are a journalist in the community here. Let’s say you work in a community that is 200 people and you work for the paper and you’re only reaching 100 people, it’s still legit journalism. Then there’s a level of livestreaming or people who aren’t affiliated. I think that’s a tricky situation, but I think it would come down to demonstrating your past reporting and your reach and the impact of your work. That would be something that would have to, I think, be left to the fire officials, but not at the scene, would be my thoughts.

Miller: April I want to turn…

Berger: ...bu...bu…

Miller: Noah, you had more?

Berger:   No, that was it. It’s a thorny issue.

Miller: Well, it’s an issue okay. And one that obviously expands way past fire access to all kinds of other important questions we can talk about another day. But April, I want to go back to what you said at the beginning when I asked you the reasons for Oregon’s prohibition on giving journalists access to these fire zones, and one of them, you said, was safety. The idea that if we let more people into places have been evacuated, more people could get hurt, or scarce firefighting resources might have to be used to help journalists who get into danger. How much stock do you put into that argument? How viable do you think that argument is?

Ehrlich: I think that we already have another state to look to to see how viable that argument is, and that’s California. It’s been working out really well for that state, in my opinion, and I think that any qualified journalist going into a dangerous situation will know how to handle themselves. That’s part of the job.

And while I have the floor, I want to get back to that idea of credentialing Journalists. We have considered credentials for Journalists in Oregon, but it becomes an issue of who’s going to manage that, who’s gonna credential people, how much is it gonna cost? The SPJ Oregon Board and folks in our committee who are working on these issues just don’t think that that’s a great way to go. We might end up there at some point, but we just don’t have a system to put in place right now. I don’t think that a credentialing system, even if we did have one, would be a very good one, a perfect one. When I was in California covering fires, I hit a roadblock and a Sheriff wouldn’t let me in because he said I didn’t have credentials and he wouldn’t let me in. It turns out that that county, Shasta County, was requiring people to go to the Sheriff’s Office to get a Press Pass, situations like that. I just don’t think that they’re communicated really well, and I’m just not sure that it would work out very smoothly.

Miller:  Noah, to turn back to the safety issue, are you aware in your time covering fires of journalists needing to be rescued or getting injured?

.

Berger: No, those two concerns that were raised up there. The journalist safety and the looting aren’t an issue in practice here. What is more of an issue here which wasn’t touched on is the quantity of press at some fires, especially when you see L.A. - both legit and non-legit  press. Where just your presence, even my presence here, I’m very experienced. I’m very outfitted. I’m very knowledgeable. I’ve done hundreds of campaign fires and even just having one more car on the road in some of these situations makes the firefighters jobs harder. So I think quantity is more of an issue than safety or looting.

Miller: So what is your suggestion for how to deal with that? Obviously L.A. is a special case in terms of just the number of people in the area who are even available to cover any incident. But what is your suggestion for how to deal with what seems like a potentially very real concern?

Berger: [Inaudible.] I think that’s the way to go, take the decision out of the hands of the police officers who are trained to recognize those nuances. It will reduce the people who aren’t supposed to be here, who are here photographing for Instagram or they sell fire photos and they think it looks cool. Doing something like that would reduce that.

Miller: April, to go back to the bill that the Oregon Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists championed, that didn’t really go anywhere in the last session. It also seems like the bill didn’t get too much public attention. Could this be the case that people in Oregon don’t know what they’re not getting and as a result don’t care that much?

Ehrlich: Yes, and I do think that was brought to my attention too. I think we could have done a better job of promoting this bill and letting people know exactly what it is they’re missing, especially since we had those really devastating wildfires last year here in Jackson County. I think people would have appreciated having more photos and more coverage of that, especially since a lot of the emergency managers and notifiers here dropped the ball. The alert system just completely didn’t work out here in Jackson County. So we were all left in the dark information wise. If there were journalists on the ground at that time, we would have been able to disseminate more information, in my opinion. Now that we have this Bootleg Fire, which was the biggest fire in the nation, and we aren’t having any photos of it to provide the public, I think this issue is coming up again. We are going to be working on this bill in a workgroup over this summer and fall. The plan is right now to to have another bill ready for 2022 and I’m pretty confident we’ll get something through at that time.

Miller: April Ehrlich and Noah Berger, thanks very much.

Berger: Thank you. Nice talking with you, Dave.

Ehrlich: Thank you.

Miller: Likewise. April Ehrlich is a Reporter with Jefferson Public Radio and President of the Oregon Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Noah Berger is a Pulitzer Prize winning Photographer. You can actually see one of his photos on our site right now. He works for the Associated Press and other outlets.

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to thinkoutloud@opb.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

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