Colorado Sheriff Justin Smith continues to restrict media coverage of High Park fire

High Park fire as seen from ICP
Smoke from the High Park Fire seen from the Incident Command Post at the Colorado National Guard Readiness Center near Fort Collins, Colo. (Official Army National Guard photo by 2nd Lt. Skye Robinson) (Released)

Justin Smith, the County Sheriff of Larimer County, is continuing to restrict media coverage of the High Park fire west of Fort Collins, Colorado. On June 11 we covered Sheriff Smith’s request that the media not show photos of destroyed homes out of respect to the homeowners. That request was generally ignored by news outlets.

Nick Christensen, executive officer for the sheriff’s department, was quoted recently as saying, “Our philosophy is the citizens need to see the damage and destruction before the general public.”

Sheriff Smith claims he can decide what the media can cover and what they can’t cover, and not just for the safety of the reporters. That is a great deal of power to put in the hands of a county sheriff.

Colorado law puts the county sheriff in charge of fires on state and private land in unincorporated areas if the fire exceeds the capacity of a single fire department. Other states see it differently, putting an agency that specializes in fire suppression in charge of fires. Texas also has an archaic system, and puts a County Judge in charge of fires in some areas.

Here are some excerpts from a June 20 AP story about Sheriff Smith’s restrictions on media coverage:

…Journalists say the Colorado restrictions are too strict and hurt their ability to report.

“I’m sympathetic to their desire to help the victim,” said Joey Bunch, a reporter for The Denver Post. “I’m not sympathetic to their desire to control what’s going on.”

Bunch, a 27-year-veteran who has covered numerous natural disasters, said the Larimer sheriff’s restrictions are “the most concerted effort I’ve seen to get between the press and the victims.”

At some previous wildfires in Colorado and in other states, authorities have escorted news media into evacuation zones before residents or the general public was allowed in, sometimes while the fire is still active.

With the current fire, “They’re robbing the victims of the chance to tell their story,” Bunch said. “The larger public isn’t being able to fully appreciate the size of the fire and the size of the tragedy because the story isn’t being told.”

Fire management teams routinely try to get journalists safe access to fires to get the news out, said Mike Ferris, a public information officer for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

“Generally, I’ll do everything I can to get you access to get your story,” he said.

Rules for media access vary from state to state and even from wildfire to wildfire. In California, state law allows news organizations virtually unfettered access to fires. Other states leave the decisions up to the agency responsible for the land involved…

[…]

…In one incident, the sheriff’s department withheld for 24 hours a video recording, made by a fire official inside the evacuation zone using an NBC News camera and tape. NBC News producer Jack Chesnutt said he thought he would get the tape back immediately to share with other news outlets.

Christensen, the sheriff’s executive officer, said the department always intended to show the video to evacuated residents before returning it.

“These are not the conditions that I thought we had agreed to when we handed them the camera,” Chesnutt said. He called the High Park Fire coverage restrictions “unprecedented.”…

Thanks go out to Paul and Dick

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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2 thoughts on “Colorado Sheriff Justin Smith continues to restrict media coverage of High Park fire”

  1. Since many Fire Departments are special districts in Colorado and fires on County and State Land are the financial responsibility of the County to pay, as well as the fact that the Sheriff is responsible for public safety within their County – The Sheriff is the ultimate authority and makes decisions for the safety of the people (wildfire, floods, crime, unrest, etc.). The Sheriff is an elected position and according to our great country is there to act at the will of the people. Fire Chiefs, State Fire Marshalls, Police Chiefs and others that are appointed are therefore several layers away from public choice. I would personally rather have an elected in charge than someone appointed. I can’t say that Sheriff Smith’s policy is in alignment with my own, but if the decisions the Sheriff makes are against the public will in his County, the public has a choice the next time they enter the polls.
    The position of a County Sheriff has been around and mostly unchanged for centuries and I for one believe that to be a good thing. It gives us a direct choice in someone making choices for us.
    I also believe that media should have the same access as the general public. It Sheriff Smith is only allowing property owners to the information then he may feel he has rights to restrict access to the public/media. That’s a much bigger question than I could answer.

  2. In my opinion, Sheriff Smith is acting like he is walking on eggshells. He is new to the office, and he is not popular at all with the progressive majority of greater Fort Collins, and, _because_ he is elected, he has no choice but to be something of a political animal. Thus, he is being overly cautious so as not to give his critics any hint of political ammunition. I can understand the sensitivities of victims, and I support is conservative approach regarding that. But there is needful information that is not getting out.

    For example: there are a number of GIS-savvy folks out there. who simply want to provide the local public with repackaged geographical information (such as evacuation regions) in a more useful form, that have had to re-digitize the fire perimiter of the one single PDF map per day that is released because the nightly infrared KMZ data file is being withheld as being too “sensitive” (it never has for all other incidents I have been aware of). Said file must instead be assimilated into the one form the county believes is in the best public interest.

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