Local Reporters Race Flames to Chase Story

A reporter interviewing other reporters is one of the most difficult genres to tackle. This student reporter dug deep when questioning her contemporaries as well as veteran journalists.

By Maci Lee Martell

On a seemingly normal Sunday night, Paul Gullixson was sound asleep in his Rincon Valley home, along with the majority of Sonoma County. At 2:30 a.m., Oct. 9, he awoke to a neighbor pounding on his door — the way most Santa Rosa residents awakened early that morning.

He scurried downstairs. The power was out. He opened the door, fearing his neighbor’s house was ablaze. Amid heat and turbulent winds, he realized something massive was advancing.

“You could see smoke and flames coming from the Calistoga Road area. You could see the glow and the immensity of what was happening, and so we evacuated and I came to my office.”

Gullixson, then-editorial director at The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, learned that fires were breaking out everywhere. His home was stuck in the middle. Friends were losing their houses one by one.

“I’ve reported on many different disasters — earthquakes, wildfires, floods, all kinds of things — but never anything like this,” he said of his 35 years of reporting. “This was the worst that I’ve ever seen.”

Gullixson began interviewing residents, trying to differentiate his role as a reporter from that of a community member. This was the first disaster in which he didn’t need to scrounge for sources — their numbers were already in his phone.

“These were my friends. It was tough. You’re juggling so many things. In the meantime, you still have to get a paper out, you still have to report on the enormity of this disaster.”

In the wake of the deadly fires, many people were left mournful, including local journalists like Gullixson who reported on the calamity in their own backyard.

The apocalypse erupted amid howling winds that topped 50 mph on the night of Oct. 8 and took nearly three weeks to contain. Altogether, the North Bay fires killed at least 43 people and resulted in about 2,500 people who were reported missing within the first week as they scattered for safety, unable to contact anyone because cell towers were unresponsive. The collective fires devoured nearly 9,000 structures in Sonoma and Napa counties.

The Tubbs Fire, just north of Gullixson’s home, was particularly gruesome. As of Nov. 1, it had killed 21 people. The Tubbs Fire consumed 5,600 structures and left behind a wasteland of about 56 square miles — the size of San Francisco and Berkeley combined — making it the most destructive wildfire in state history, according to Cal Fire.

Yet even when panic and uncertainty peaked, local reporters obtained whatever information they could.

Gullixson wasn’t the only one distressed. Matt Brown, editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier, reiterated the difficulty of approaching people who lost everything. He said that reporters must develop the necessary skills to be able to interview and tell a victim’s story sympathetically.

“Be there as a reporter and talk to them, then put the notebook and camera down and help them. Telling their stories also helps them by letting others know what they’re going through, so people can send aid or help out in any way they can.”

Because Petaluma was spared, Brown mainly wrote stories about evacuees pouring into the city’s emergency shelters and the tremendous work of volunteers and first responders. While reporting on the fire on Highway 37 and Lakeville Highway, just south of Petaluma, Brown noted the firefighters’ “enormous heroic effort” as they toiled for an entire week to quell flames that scorched 2,000 acres of land.

Brown is no stranger to reporting on disasters and tragedies. After freelancing for Time magazine and the Associated Press, he was a foreign correspondent for three years in Africa covering war, famine and genocide. Even so, this fire was different.

Early in the morning on Oct. 9, when many people were just learning about the fires, Brown called the Argus-Courier’s then-news editor, Hannah Beausang.

Beausang began reporting from the town’s evacuation centers, gathering heartbreaking anecdotes. She reported nonstop for the three weeks the fires raged, and made countless, tough phone calls asking people what it’s like to lose everything. Yet she stumbled upon a silver lining, as the Sonoma County community came together.

“It was an interesting dichotomy. It’s hard to be able to frame people’s tragedy in a constructive way. But people, I think, are very heartened by the sense of unity that’s emerged from this tragedy.”

At the end of the first week, Beausang went to the city of Sonoma. The historic Sonoma Plaza, typically bustling with activity and tourism, was a ghost town. A few people wearing face masks wandered through the smoke-filled air. Fire crews worked in the affected areas as PG&E personnel assessed the downed power lines. Driving down Highway 12, Beausang marveled at how some vineyards remained pristine while houses right next to them had been obliterated. “It was kind of like being in Mad Max.”

Steve Rubenstein, a staff writer at The San Francisco Chronicle since 1976, remarked how uncomfortable it was to witness the aftermath of the Napa County fires.

“You have to keep reminding yourself as a reporter that the reason you are covering tragedy is because it’s unusual, because it’s not the way of the world. The way of the world is generally good, and the reason that the bad stuff gets into the news is because it’s unusual. Covering fires or any kind of disaster or tragedy is tough, and one of the hardest things about being a reporter is seeing things you don’t want to see.”

Rubenstein noted that victims of natural disasters usually want to share their stories, so it’s surprisingly non-intrusive to interview them—as long as the reporter is sensitive, open and caring. “You’re a human being before you’re a reporter. I don’t think it’s a conflict being a reporter and a person. I hope not anyway, because I’m stuck being both.”

Albert Gregory, then-managing editor at Santa Rosa Junior College’s student newspaper, The Oak Leaf, recalled the crucial lessons he learned. “You think it’s hard before — breaking down barriers and talking to people — but then they lost everything. Just navigating that and finding what worked best was a big learning experience.”

When the fires broke out, Gregory established a control center in his Petaluma apartment where he edited videos and photos from Oak Leaf staff on the scene. Together, they updated their website. Brandon McCapes, then-Oak Leaf news editor, obtained footage of the burned areas and active fires with nary any details nor knowledgeable people to interview.

“There’s no information, no internet, no cell phone service, no way to communicate with the outside world,” McCapes said. “We went on a lot of word of mouth, and just visually following smoke and flames.”

The Oak Leaf staff members’ initial days chasing the fires were pumped with adrenaline and, in hindsight, foolish moves. Gregory recalled them hurtling down narrow dirt roads in Sonoma in his old minivan. At times they had to turn around or pull over as firetrucks raced by.

“Literally, we went around a corner and all of a sudden the road was on fire. We had just narrowly escaped a tree collapsing on my car. We didn’t see it, someone told us about it after. We’re like, ‘Oh, we were idiots just then.’ We could’ve gotten killed.”

For James Wyatt, a co-editor-in-chief at the Oak Leaf last October, getting close to the fires was surreal. He evacuated at night when the fires broke out and worried about his house and neighborhood while reporting. Yet being so connected to the community gave him and his fellow Santa Rosa reporters an advantage.

“Know that you do have an edge. This is your backyard. You know the roads, you know who to talk to. We’re experts on our own city.”

Gullixson said that as a journalist it’s important not to be detached, and to share personal concerns about what people are experiencing and feeling.

“As you hear the stories you understand how many people almost perished but by the good graces of neighbors and others who came to their aid, they didn’t. So that’s important getting those stories out, and I’ve been proud of that.”

Gullixson agonized over his friends and was often torn between leaving to help them or staying in the newsroom. He reminded himself and his co-workers that their jobs were urgent. It was crucial to convey to readers what was happening and give them insights as to what the next steps might be.

Gullixson and others also embraced unexpected tenderness. He recounted how his son’s Boy Scout troop organized a pancake breakfast benefit for victims that raised more than $20,000.

“There was a moment where firefighters from Cal Fire came into the dining hall, which was full. The whole place erupted in applause and gave them a standing ovation. It was a wonderful moment; there wasn’t a dry-eye. It was very touching. Those are certainly gratifying moments.”

Covering the wildfires marked a turning point in the careers of some North Bay journalists, giving them pivotal experiences in telling stories of tragedy, heroism and hope.

Brown said the devastation might be the biggest story of this generation in the North Bay. Beausang said local journalists as well as the community ought to look to the future in a constructive way.

“Our coverage is not anywhere close to being over. While the fires are out, there’s still a lot of people’s lives who’ve been shattered by this. So I think it’s our job as journalists to encapsulate that.”

Notes: The author, Maci Lee Martell, was The Oak Leaf newspaper editor-in-chief in the spring of 2016 and supervised Albert Gregory and James Wyatt when they were staff writers. Martell’s first-person sidebar about preparing to evacuate her Petaluma home published earlier this year in the Argus-Courier. The story remains online at:

http://www.petaluma360.com/opinion/8029621-181/staying-safe-from-wildfires

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