California newspaper wins Pulitzer Prize for coverage of North Bay wildfires

Nine years ago the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer for their series of “Explanatory Reporting” articles about the state of wildland fire management.

Above: Map showing the location of wildfires north of San Francisco, October 18, 2017. The Press Democrat’s offices are in Santa Rosa.

(Originally published at 12:33 p.m. MDT April 21, 2018)

The staff of The Press Democrat has won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting for their coverage of the huge wildfires north of San Francisco in October, 2017.

Here is an excerpt from one of the 10 articles that were submitted to the Pulitzer jury, titled, “Firestorm Nightmare: How we covered the early hours of California’s most destructive fire”. The article begins with the perspective of Kent Porter, a skilled photographer who has covered numerous wildfires in California.

ABOUT 10 P.M., SUNDAY, OCT. 8 » As the wind howls outside his Windsor home, photographer Kent Porter turns on his scanner and hears crews talking about a brush fire 13 miles away off Tubbs Lane on Highway 128 near Calistoga. He grabs his gear and takes off.

As he passes over Mark West Springs and Petrified Forest roads, he can see the glow of fire in the hills. “The wind was just going crazy,” he said later. “Grass was burning. Vineyards were burning. Power poles were going back and forth, and electrical lines were sparking. It was pandemonium.”

10:42 P.M. » One of Porter’s first photos is a ghostly image of a firefighter racing through the yard of a home near the origin of the Tubbs fire. The flames would soon begin devouring rural homes in the valleys bordering Napa and Sonoma counties, racing west toward the region’s largest city. “This thing is going all the way to Santa Rosa,” a fire official tells Porter.

11:50 P.M. » Porter sends a text message to Managing Editor Ted Appel: “Ted this is going to be in Santa Rosa in a few minutes. I strongly suggest you get a reporter out.” Appel begins waking up reporters and preparing the first story.

The fire burned into Santa Rosa, the city in which The Press Democrat is based and the home for many of their employees.

The 10 articles can be read at the Pulitzer website.

The New York Times, which was also considered for a Breaking News Pulitzer for their coverage of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, wrote about The Press Democrat:

The firestorm lasted 30 days, killing 40 people and destroying more than 6,100 homes. [Managing Editor Ted] Appel recalls an exhausting grind — part war zone, part marathon — that engulfed every member of his staff. The line between duty and safety soon blurred: Evacuated reporters slept in the newsroom, dogs and children ran between the desks.

“This wasn’t just a big news story for us,” Mr. Appel said. “This happened to people we knew, it happened to our town.”

The caption for the photo above: “Staff members of The Press Democrat, from left, Randi Rossmann, Julie Johnson, Martin Espinoza, JD Morris, Christi Warren and Mary Callahan, celebrate winning the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting for the coverage of the October fires in Sonoma County. Credit Kent Porter/The Press Democrat”

Nine years ago a series of articles about wildland fire won a Pulitzer Prize for authors Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times. The articles about the state of wildfire management were extremely well written and exhaustively researched, due in part to their Freedom of Information Act request for cartons of U.S. Forest Service records.

The Pulitzer board, making the award in the Explanatory Reporting category, called the series a “fresh and painstaking exploration into the cost and effectiveness of attempts to combat the growing menace of wildfires.”

Water tender rolls over en route to Sawmill Fire in northern California

CAL FIRE reports there were no injuries in the rollover

water tender rollover
A U.S. Coast Guard water tender rolled over while en route to the Sawmill Fire. Photo by Kent Porter; used with permission.

(UPDATED at 9:14 a.m. PDT September 27, 2016)

Firefighters have stopped the spread of the Sawmill Fire in northern California that burned 1,541 acres on a south facing slope along Geysers Road 26 miles north of Santa Rosa. Roads connecting geothermal facilities at the top of the ridge served as anchors for burnout operations.

3-D map Sawmill Fire
3-D map of the Sawmill Fire at 11 p.m. PDT September 26, 2016.

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(Originally published at 8:23 a.m. PDT September 26, 2016)

A water tender rolled over while responding to the Sawmill Fire in northern California September 25. CAL FIRE reported that there were no injuries during the accident that occurred on Geysers Road in Sonoma County.

The Sawmill Fire started Sunday and by evening CAL FIRE estimated it had burned 1,500 acres. The fire is off Big Geysers Road 26 air miles north of Santa Rosa and 14 miles southwest of the community of Clear Lake. Sunday night mandatory evacuations were in place for residents in the Geysers.

DC-10 drop sawmill fire
DC-10 drops on the Sawmill Fire, September 25, 2016. Photo by Kent Porter, used with permission.

On September 21 the rollover of a water tender enroute to the Canyon Fire on Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California resulted in the death of a firefighter.

map sawmill fire
Map of the Sawmill Fire at 11 p.m. PDT September 25, 2016.

Most people do not think of the U.S. Coast Guard as having land-based firefighting apparatus, but the agency’s large training center just west of Petaluma, California has a full fire department.

Articles on Wildfire Today about the rollover of fire apparatus while assigned to a wildland fire are tagged “rollover”.

Firefighters on the Valley Fire aided by the weather

(UPDATE at 9:05 a.m. PT, September 17, 2015)

The Lake County Sheriff’s office announced today that the remains of two more people were discovered in the Hidden Valley and Anderson Springs areas. More information.

On Wednesday the weather station in Calistoga south of the fire recorded 0.77 inch of rain. Some areas on the fire received more than 0.50″, according to CAL FIRE. However, they warn that a warming trend is in the forecast with temperatures expected to exceed 90 degrees over the weekend.

Some areas in Lake and Napa counties are still under evacuation orders. For more evacuation information, call (707) 967-4207).

The fire has burned 73,700 acres and CAL FIRE is calling it 35 percent contained.

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(UPDATE at 10:47 a.m. PT, September 15, 2015)

Firefighters on the Valley Fire burning out Sept. 14, 2015 near Highway 29 south of Lower Lake. Photo by SLOSTRNGER used with permission.
Firefighters on the Valley Fire burning out Sept. 13, 2015 near Highway 29 south of Lower Lake. Photo by SLOSTRNGER used with permission.

On Monday the spread of the 67,000-acre Valley fire 62 miles north of San Francisco was slowed by temperatures in the low 60s, relative humidity above 80 percent, and 0.01″ of rain that fell in the late afternoon, according to data from a weather station south of the fire in Calistoga.

CAL FIRE reported Tuesday morning that their latest damage assessment shows that 585 homes and hundreds of other structures have been destroyed. The surveys are continuing and the numbers will likely change in the coming days. Approximately 9,000 structures are threatened. Evacuations are still in place, affecting 23,000 people.

In addition to the homes that burned in Middletown and Cobb, a geothermal plant that produces electricity, The Geysers, was damaged. Five of the 14 plants were affected, including power lines and wooden cooling towers.

Air tankers have not worked the fire since Saturday, grounded by poor visibility caused by smoke and clouds. Tuesday’s weather is expected to make it possible to use them again. The forecast calls for a 35 percent cloud cover, a high temperature of 73 degrees, relative humidity in the 40s, and winds out of the west at 8 to 13 mph.

The video below was aired by a San Francisco television station and uploaded to YouTube September 14, 2015..

Valley Fire Jefferson CT
Jefferson Court in Middletown after the Valley Fire. Photo Sept. 13, 2015 by SLOSTRINGER, used with permission.

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(UPDATE at 1:47 p.m. PT, September 14, 2015)

The Lake County Sheriff’s office have confirmed they have found the body of a civilian that died in the Valley Fire, which has burned 61,000 acres 62 miles north of San Francisco. They don’t yet have an official identification from the Coroner, but it is believed to be an elderly, disabled woman who was not able to self-evacuate.

According to the Lake County Press Democrat the Sheriff’s office received a phone call at 7:12 p.m. on Saturday, about six hours after the fire started. At 7:20 deputies and officers responded to the area but were unable to reach the subdivision because it had already been engulfed in flames, according to Lt. Steve Brooks.

Dispatch lines were flooded with requests from people asking for help evacuating and family members asking authorities to check on their relatives.
Continue reading “Firefighters on the Valley Fire aided by the weather”

Wildfire news, September 11, 2012

American Flag
Photo by Bill Gabbert

Eleven years ago…..

Today, eleven years after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, we will pause for a minute to remember those firefighters and other citizens who lost their lives that day……………….

Next Generation legged robots

We first wrote about these “robot dogs” in 2009, and now DARPA has developed the next generation of these machines that are designed to “unburden dismounted [military] squad members by carrying their gear, autonomously following them through rugged terrain, and interpreting verbal and visual commands.”

DARPA's legged robots

I wonder how much water or fire hose these critters can carry?

Amazing air tanker photo

One of the best photos ever taken of an air tanker drop was taken by Kent Porter at the Scotts fire in northern California and can be found at the San Francisco Chronicle web site.

California fire protection fee

The San Francisco Chronicle also has an article that updates the situation in which California owners of habitable structures in areas where the state is responsible for fire prevention must pay a $150 fee. Lawsuits may be filed. Of course.

New map of all large fires this year

The Associated Press has an interesting map that supposedly shows all of the large fires that have occurred this year.

Atomic scientists weigh in on climate change and wildland fires

A publication titled Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has published an article written by Max Moritz, of the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management in the College of Natural Resources at University of California, Berkeley. (I wonder if all that fits on a business card?) Mr. Moritz writes about how climate change will affect wildland fires and the population. It does not exactly break new ground, with the recommendations being communities should be fire-resistant and we must learn to coexist again with wildfire.

Thanks go out to Kelly