By Thursday this week, two massive fires in southern and northern California were roaring: the Tick Fire, just north of Los Angeles, and the Kincade Fire, north of the Bay Area in Sonoma County. In Southern California alone, more than 40,000 people were ordered to evacuate. Homes and businesses are burning, and with winds expected to pick up to historic levels this weekend, around 2 million people in the Bay Area, Northern California, and Central California could potentially lose power over the weekend, as Pacific Gas and Electric says it may have to suspend much of its operations to prevent more electric lines from catching fire. It would be the third time this month that PG&E has pulled the plug on its customers for fear of sparking a wildfire. At the beginning of the month, the utility cut power across a massive stretch of Northern California. Schools closed, people in need of medical assistance were told to evacuate, cars lined up around the block at gas stations, and stores ran out of batteries and other supplies as residents did whatever they could in the few hours we were given to prepare.
This is fire season. And as it rages, local journalists are on the ground chronicling the damage, the displacement, and the health and environmental toll. Last year, when I traveled to Butte County, California, to cover the aftermath of the Camp Fire, I interviewed residents who had lost everything, writing from areas that were still smoldering. To learn about this year’s fires, I spoke with Emily Baumgaertner, a science and metro reporter at the Los Angeles Times, who has been covering the Tick Fire. We discussed what she saw this week, how residents of the affected areas are coping, and what it’s like to be a journalist in a fire zone, where you sometimes see that people’s homes have been decimated before they can, because the fire is still burning. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
April Glaser: What’s it been like on the ground covering the Tick Fire?
Emily Baumgaertner: The Tick Fire was a perfect example of when local reporting on a disaster that affects your readers basically requires all hands on deck and requires a lot of moving parts and a lot of people participating in the reporting process. I was on the ground right in Santa Clarita right near the fire, but there were a half-dozen people in the newsroom working the phones, working the desk, trying to get as much detail as possible, and we were just constantly coordinating to try to get as close to the fire as possible and get information as quickly as we could.
When did you arrive on the scene?
I arrived about 7 p.m. [Thursday] night. We knew by early afternoon that this particular fire was going to require extra attention because it was moving quickly and was fairly close to LA County and where we were based. But L.A. traffic is crazy in the first place, and then when you add a ton of road closures and fires happening over the road, there’s quite a backup. So it took a while to get up there, but as soon as I arrived, basically you can use your press pass to get through all the closures. So we just sort of talked with the officers and tried to navigate our way through and get up the roads that were blocked. And they wish you luck and send you on your way up the closed roads.
How long were you there on the ground?
I was there until about 1:30 [Friday] morning. In a situation like this, I think it’s important to just stay local because you just don’t know what’s going to happen. In this particular fire, we had a pretty good indication that no matter what we were seeing into the evening, that the wind was going to pick up and the heat was going to pick up. And when those two factors combine, you basically have a situation where you want to be able to move as quickly as the fire. You want to be as close as you can be.
So what were you covering? Were you assigned to people who were evacuating? The firefighters?
In this particular fire, there were only two of us that were able to get into the scene, so it was basically a free-for-all. I started at an evacuation center because I wanted to talk to as many people as I could who had already been in the line of fire. I spoke with a bunch of families who had left their properties, left their ranches, who had seen embers settling on their lawns, sheriffs coming through saying, “Get out, get out.” So they all dove in their cars and headed to these evacuation shelters. I spoke with them quite a bit, and then once we hit our 9 p.m. print deadline, that’s when it kind of turned into a free-for-all. So I got in my car and started driving east; I wanted to try to get up to as close to the flames as I could—safely, of course. I was in Valencia, which is the safe spot for families who are evacuating, and then I drove east toward the Tick Fire and got up toward Sierra Highway. And what I did was try to take house addresses where I knew houses were burning, put them in a GPS, and get as close as I could as long as I was keeping an eye on what my alternate exit route could be. As long as there were two ways out, I was willing to get up toward the houses.
Sierra Highway was a total blackout. So once I got past the road closures and used a press pass to get past the sheriffs that were guarding the road, I drove for miles and started to see clusters of firemen that were on the side of the road resting or water trucks that were refilling at hydrants. And then I could tell I was sort of right in the middle of their operation. So I was navigating up one hill and stopped at a mobile home park that was totally blacked out, and everyone had evacuated. All you could hear were these sort of eerie wind chimes on the porches, these dusty porches that had clearly just been on the line of these fires tearing through. And on the top of the hill—and you know, fire goes up—so on the top of the hill I could see glowing. My goal was to find a way to get to the top and see basically what was the final ambush that the fire had on this neighborhood. So I found somebody with an SUV and we found our way up to the top, and that’s where we found a house that was just totally floored. Just totally leveled.
Were most of the houses leveled or still intact? Did you see small spot fires? Tell me what it was like on the ground.
There weren’t a lot of houses that were leveled. It was pitch black so there was very little you could see because of where the cliffs were. Electricity is completely off, no street lighting, and you’re already in these pretty rural canyons. There are houses on the edges of hillsides. It was completely pitch black. All you really had was your headlight. And it was very dusty with a lot of embers, so it’s just hard to see anything. I used the classic reporter tactic, which is if you see six fire engines racing, that’s the direction you should go in. There was a particular neighborhood with a lot of embers on the hillside, so we were kind of traversing through there. On the top of one hill, we did find a house where was nothing left except a bed frame and a ton of rubble, just dusty rubble. Inexplicably, there was an untouched bowl of fruit out front—it seemed like the fire just didn’t hit the porch. And then on the driveway there were two trash bags full of clean and folded clothing, so it appeared that this family or residents of this home made a run for it and dropped some of their evacuation belongings on the way.
What about the people who didn’t evacuate? Of course, yes, there was an evacuation order, but not everybody goes.
Yeah, not everybody does. I think a lot of folks sort of evaluate their own situation and decide, first of all, how hard would it be to evacuate if they decide it’s time. So we talked to a lot of folks who said, “It would take me five minutes if I saw fire.” My colleague, Leila Miller, talked to someone who said, you know, “I’ve got horses but it would take me five minutes to put my horse into the trailer and hit the road, so I’d rather just kind of wait it out then deal with all the complications of evacuation.” There are others I spoke to who evacuated with their animals and, at the time I spoke to them, had no idea if their houses were still standing. So they wouldn’t know until today.
Tell me a bit about this area. Is it a rural area that’s mostly being hit at the moment by the Tick Fire just north of Los Angeles?
It’s a huge area, and I certainly didn’t see all of it. I was in right where the heart of the Tick Fire was. There’s a lot of ranches in these canyons. So big properties and farm properties and certainly some neighborhoods as well, but it’s not like this was in the middle of the city. There was a lot to burn, a lot of fuel for the fire.
I’m up in Northern California, and I reported on the Camp Fire last year. And after that, there were camps set up in parking lots and at the fairground. People were just everywhere. Does that seem like what’s going on there now?
I saw lots of people in parking lots. A lot of that is because, and interestingly I don’t know if this was by chance or regional, almost every person that I saw had almost two animals with them. And I think this is a community with a lot of horses and a lot of pets, so sheltering is more complex in those cases. So I saw a lot of animal control workers and lots of veterinarians around trying to help people figure out what’s the best way not only to protect their families but also protect their pets.
How do you file stories on the ground? Are you on the phone with your editor sharing details? Are you sitting down with your laptop on the floor of a hallway? How does it work?
When I’m at a shelter or an evacuation center, I’ll sort of gather as much reporting in sort of five- to 10-minute increments as I can. And then I’ll run around the corner of a building with my laptop, set up a hotspot, and file feeds to someone on the desk who is anchoring the story. I have a colleague, Jaclyn Cosgrove, who is just a killer story anchor for fires, so she was here late last night and she’s a reporter who was anchoring the stories and I was filing feeds to her.* But once you get into the fire you don’t take out your laptop: It’d just be too complicated. But I found, and I hope this doesn’t sound too dramatic, but if you’re on a laptop or something and you’re looking down for too long, it can be a little nerve-racking. You’re afraid you’re going to look up and see fire. So I sort of kept myself writing short feeds, keeping myself very aware of my surroundings, and was filing mostly on my phone. So we use Slack, text, Signal, WhatsApp, whatever we need to, to sort of coordinate with the rest of the team.
So how do you deal with air quality while you’re there?
The L.A. Times does a really good job of preparing us. They give us fire training. And when I left the office [Thursday], I had five minutes’ warning and I picked up a fire bag: hats, masks, jackets, and even fire pants, and everything that we need. So I took that and I picked up a case of water and lots of chargers. And I brought eye drops, because I wear contacts so I knew that would be rough, then just headed in. I try to wear whatever fire gear is necessary. I wear press identification. In an evacuation shelter, I certainly don’t wear fire gear to draw too much attention to myself. But when I was headed up to the top of the hills where I was sort of among the embers and cracking and smaller flames, I was fully donned in my fire gear and mask. At one point I was with a photographer who had an SUV and was getting pretty close to the flames to try to capture it, and we were wearing goggles and masks because it was pretty brutal up at the top.
It’s emotionally challenging to do this reporting sometimes. People have lost everything and will continue to lose more as they learn more about what’s happening. Can you tell me about that?
I think it’s not only an emotional experience. It’s also an ethically challenging experience. In cases like the house we came across that was completely leveled on the top of the hill and that there was evidence that a family had essentially gone running, I was very aware of the fact that I was seeing their house before they were and that I sort of knew the fate was of their property before they would. And I assume that only [Friday] at the earliest would they sort of venture back and find that nothing had made it through the fire. In those situations, we stay focused. We check in with our colleagues to make sure everyone is doing OK. Make sure people take breaks when they need to and I think it’s important that we’re reminding each other how can we be most respectful to the subjects we’re covering, even when they don’t know that they’re the subject of our story. So when we found that property, we made sure not to touch any of the belongings or manipulate things in any way and just try to find out as much details as we could without interacting with the story in any way.
Correction, Oct. 26, 2019: An earlier version of this article misspelled Jaclyn Cosgrove’s first name.