Follow the Camp Fire

ABOUT THE PROJECT

Follow the Camp Fire is an in-progress project tracking the recovery of 121 evacuees of the Camp Fire. A pilot project wedding engagement journalism and disaster reporting, this project will investigate and report on the ongoing experience of wildfire evacuees, and issues related to wildfire preparation and mitigation.

The goal is to improve news dissemination and public awareness of policy, natural resource management and the risk of natural disaster in the age of climate change.

BACKGROUND

In November 2018 the Camp Fire, now billed as the most destructive in California’s history, leveled the community of Paradise, California, consuming 14,000 homes and killing 85 people. In the days following the fire, I traveled to Chico, California, the nearest community to Paradise, to gather contact information from as many evacuees as possible with the intention of keeping in touch with them for a period of one year.

Now in-progress, the project is tracking the recovery of 121 evacuees of the Camp Fire. This effort will produce reporting informed by their experiences, helping to shed light on the gaps in how we report and understand the experiences of evacuees navigating recovery. Targeted dissemination will provide tailored investigative news stories to communities contending with wildfire impacts, and continued reporting on the long-term impacts of the Camp Fire.

This project included collaboration with the Chico Enterprise-Record, which published a series of stories generated from the Follow the Camp Fire project. These stories were also shared with Follow the Camp Fire participants.

PURPOSE

Disaster reporting is predominantly event-based, leaving out in-depth follow-up coverage, even though the impacts of disasters run deep and are felt for a long time after events happen. There is a lack of long-term information about what happens to people displaced by natural disasters, and how disasters impact economies, communities and people over time. A parallel gap in data on the part of agencies worsens this deficit in information. Multiple studies conducted by the PEW Research center, a nonpartisan fact tank, have shown that communities, federal agencies, counties and states are not effectively prepared for wildfire and natural disasters, and that there is even a lack of basic comprehensive information about emergency spending on the part of governments and agencies. In a similar vein, ongoing regulatory, planning and funding gridlock stunt the capacity of communities to adapt to looming natural disasters.

At the same time, the impacts of climate change have preceded an uptick in natural disasters impacting populations across the globe. In California, prolonged drought, unmanaged landscapes and rising temperatures have resulted in a dramatic rise in the frequency and destruction associated with wildfires. The top 10 most destructive wildfires in California history have occurred within the past two years, resulting in death and injury, destroying the landscape, displacing tens of thousands and costing billions. Studies also show the number of Californians living in areas that are high-risk for wildfire is rising. There are an estimated 3.4 million homes in California within these high-risk areas, and studies show this number is rising in California and throughout the nation. The role of wildfires will be increasingly important, and the size of the population impacted will continue to grow.

Research and reporting on disaster impacts is especially pertinent in a time when climate change is one of the most pressing issues of the era. A culture of politicized information and cultural division has contributed to a mistrust of science, and journalism has amplified the opinions of climate skeptics, whose assertions are not based in fact. Coupled with a mistrust of the media, the result has been outright disbelief or a skewed understanding of the severity of climate change for some populations, and a general lack of clarity about how to address the problems.

Aggravated by the effects of climate change, the problem of large-scale wildfire poses a serious threat to land, public safety and economy. Current reporting on the subject of wildfire often overlooks science and solutions, lacks informed examinations of policy and fails to hold power to account. Quality journalism in this area will be vital to improve accountability and planning, and to raise awareness about the long-term risks associated with failing to address wildfire.

To effectively engage audiences and repair relationships between readers and journalists will require new and more effective reporting strategies. This project utilizes engagement journalism, a method of reporting that combines journalism with community engagement to better serve and reflect communities.