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Press-Democrat Staff on Surviving the Fires and Winning Pulitzer

April 25, 2018
by Glen Martin
Julie Johnson and Brett Wilkison

The North Bay fires were national news mere hours after they ignited early in the morning of October 9. The dawn sun, glimmering wanly through the pall of smoke cloaking Sonoma and Napa Counties, illuminated the smoldering ruins of hundreds of homes. No relief was imminent: the hot, dry winds that had sent the flames howling from Calistoga to Santa Rosa continued unabated, and the forecast was for more of the same.  This was a natural catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina—possibly worse. All the big media sent their breaking news A-teams, and like the flames, the coverage was wall-to-wall.

American journalism regained some of its lost luster on the North Bay fires. Legacy newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post acquitted themselves admirably, as did California’s papers of record, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times. It was clear that the North Bay fires would be a contender for the 2017 Pulitzer in the breaking news category, even in the year that included the Houston and Puerto Rico hurricanes. But who would claim the prize? The conventional wisdom, of course, favored one of the media big dogs: the Times or the Post—or perhaps the Chronicle, which, headquartered a mere 55 miles from Santa Rosa, had something of a geographical advantage over its larger competitors.

But when the Pulitzers were announced, it was the true home team that took the laurels: the staff of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. With only 14 reporters dedicated to fire coverage, the PD, as it’s known locally, didn’t have a very deep bench. But it compensated with a fierce dedication to the ethos of journalism and the communities of the North Bay, along with a demonstrable mastery of modern communication tools.

In the end, the Pulitzer judges awarded the prize to the PD …For lucid and tenacious coverage of historic wildfires that ravaged the city of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, expertly utilizing an array of tools, including photography, video and social media platforms, to bring clarity to its readers—in real time and in subsequent in-depth reporting…”

Further, the staffers of the PD have more than the Pulitzers in common. Nine are Cal alums. Two of them, reporter Julie Johnson (MA, journalism, 2009) and local editor Brett Wilkison (BA, history, 2000; MA, journalism, 2008) talked with California recently about the challenges of covering one of 2017’s greatest natural calamities and the thrill of winning the most prestigious prize in American journalism.

(Full disclosure: Working as a freelancer, Glen Martin contributed a fire-related op-ed and a few news features to the Press-Democrat; the op-ed had originally been posted here.)

Group of Cal alumnus that work for the Press Democrat
Front row, left to right: Diane Peterson (’82), Kerry Benefield (’95), John Burgess (’85). Back row, left to right, Kathleen Coates (’78), Gaye LeBaron (’57), Robert Digitale (’79), Julie Johnson (’09), Brett Wilkison (’08). Not pictured J.D. Morris (’14) / Beth Schlanker, The Press Democrat

California: Congratulations on the Pulitzer. When you got the call [in the newsroom], everyone responded in an almost martial fashion. And this was when the fires were threatening the homes of staffers. In fact, several lost houses. How many?

Johnson: Seven. None worked in the newsroom. They work in other departments: advertising, circulation. But they are all colleagues.

California: Obviously, there were no plans for dealing with a situation of this scope. Describe the initial staff response, if you would.

Wilkison: Julie was the first reporter on the story –––

Johnson: I live near downtown, and I woke up [around 3:00 a.m.] because of the smell of the smoke and the sound of propane tanks exploding. So I started closing windows. The fire felt very close, even for people who lived right in the city. Then Tim Appel, the managing editor, sent out a text message, asking if anyone could come into the office, and I responded “yes.” I have a four-year-old—three at the time—and I called his dad, and he got over as quickly as he could. I had time to make coffee, and got to the newsroom, and people started trickling in shortly after that. It was very surreal. By early morning we knew the fire had made it from Calistoga to Coffey Park and that several other fires were burning, including in the Sonoma Valley. But it was unclear for a long time where the fronts of the fires were and the specific neighborhoods that were threatened.

Wilkison: Julie and several other reporters got to veteran firefighters that night and asked them what was going on. They knew what was in front of them, but not what was behind or to the sides of them. And when we asked about other fires, in one case [a supervisor] said, “What other fires?”

Johnson: It was obvious no one had any real idea of what was going on. No one. The first person I called was a firefighter I knew who had helped save Middletown during the Valley Fire [a 2016 Lake County blaze that burned more than 75,000 acres, killed four people].  He’s seen a lot of very destructive fires, big fires, and we talked about how this compared to the Valley Fire. He was near Coffey Park at that time, and he just said, “This is worse.”

Wilkison: We thought that we had done a full-out sprint on the Valley Fire. It had commanded our front page for at least two weeks, uninterrupted. But [The North Bay fires] were our main priority for months. The coverage didn’t drop off our front page until at least late November, maybe December. And it was a relay race. Somebody was on each of the fires, all the zones, every day. People were cycling through 16 to 18 hour shifts. Photographers as well as reporters, also web producers and copy editors. It drew in all our feature reporters, we had sports reporters on the fire line.  It was occupying all of our newsroom staff, and we were getting tips from everyone associated with the paper—circulation and advertising included.

California: Everyone obviously logged a lot of overtime. How was that? Was there a sense of numbness? Did people start to fray at any point?

Johnson: That happened later. [Laughs] I’m Midwestern. I hold it in. But it was incredibly stressful. You don’t eat or sleep well, or exercise. And you find time for your little kid whenever you can.

California: How did he handle it? Did he know you were covering fires?

Johnson: He did. He knew there were fires. He knew that the sky was yellow and brown and that he couldn’t go to school, that school was closed. I didn’t get to see him much. I would just crawl into bed with him at night and get him breakfast in the morning.

California:…And then back for another 12-hour shift.

Johnson: Yeah.

Wilkison: At the same time you’re doing your job, you’re learning about friends, and other people you know in the community who have been displaced, evacuated or who lost their homes. And for me, those calls started coming in during the first morning.

California: People you knew were saying, “I lost my home….”

Wilkison: Yes: “I think it’s gone….” In a couple of cases, I was able to get past the [police] blockades with my press pass to confirm [home loss].  Eventually, I was able to go back with [the victims]. Those were really tough. But in one case, it was good news, the home survived. And there was a shared sense among people that they were not alone. I mean, often it wasn’t just their home that was gone—their whole neighborhood was gone.

California: That element—that in many cases you’re not just covering the news, but you’re covering people you know—did that feel strange that you actually had to intrude into the story at a certain point? That your genuine concern and humanity had to be part of your response?

Wilkison: I had one story I helped set up involving a close friend. We met him in the newsroom with his father and a brother on the Saturday after the fire started. They knew their home was gone. I went with them and a videographer back to the site. By that point FEMA had set up their emergency operations center [in the Press-Democrat building]. There were always people lined up outside the door.

Johnson: You’d come to work in the morning, and there’d be hundreds of people, many of them wearing face masks. Just trying to deal with the logistics.

Wilkison: Sometimes, there were just blank faces. But you’d also see a lot of solidarity in those lines. So my friend and his family and I drove slowly up to Fountaingrove [one of Santa Rosa’s burned-out neighborhoods], just trying to get a sense of where we were. All the landmarks were gone. The metal street signs and lampposts were melted, twisted and bent over. There were still downed wires. Just a totally transformed landscape. These two brothers had grown up there, and their parents still lived there [before the fires]. Finally, we turned the corner onto their street, and everyone in the car started crying. That was the first time since the fires that they had seen their home. And they allowed us to document it as they sifted through the ruins. I had to walk away at a couple of points just to give them their privacy.

Two staff of The Press Democrat
Wilkison and Johnson in the newsroom / Alvin Jornada, The Press Democrat

Johnson: Talking now, all these things are coming back about those first days. The number of calls—I’d take call after call, ‘Can you tell me what’s happening here, what’s happening there?’ It took firefighters three days just to understand where the fires were even going.  I remember that feeling, all these people desperately needing information, legitimately needing information, and we were all doing our best, but no, I can’t tell you about your home. Call after call, and email after email…

Wilkison: One of the most effective things we found—starting with the Valley Fire and carrying through with these fires—was just taking a drive and holding the phone way out the window and just [taking videos] street after street, showing people what things looked like. A very simple technique. Our photographers were doing that in the middle of the flames. We’d put it on Facebook live, but even later, it was both informative and cathartic to see those videos. We used them on social media and YouTube, and we’d put the links in our stories.

We were up in the air on the second day or third day, and [photographer] John Burgess took those images of Coffey Park. And that was when the rest of the world understood the war-like devastation we were facing. More than a thousand homes in a middle-class, flatland neighborhood on the west side of six lanes of Highway 101, [far from] properties more likely to be affected by a wildfire—all just wiped off the map.

California: Covering these fires for a month, there have to be some images that just stick in your brain, that you’ll never get rid of. Can you give me a couple of those?

Johnson: A few days after the fires started—I think it was Wednesday—I went to the Sonoma Valley. There was this question of whether the City of Sonoma would be evacuated. So I spent some time in different neighborhoods, and people were hosing down their roofs and shoving things in their cars. And it felt like an occupied state. There were law enforcement and National Guard everywhere, and checkpoints you had to get through. The [National Guard] were all in fatigues, and they all looked about twelve years old. And it was the middle of the day, but it was dark because of the smoke. And at one point, near the Sonoma Plaza, it looked like it was snowing from ash raining down from the sky, and a deputy started going slowly around the plaza on a loudspeaker, saying “Get out! Get out! The fire is coming!” It was echoing off the buildings, and the ash was coming down, and people were standing around wondering what the hell to do, and there was a huge line of traffic leading to the main road. Fires were burning nearby, they were totally out of control, and it was all very scary.

Wilkison: That was a day they were predicting another period of very high winds. That first Wednesday [following the start of the fires] we started hearing a buzz of activity [on radios and scanners]. A bunch of employees rushed upstairs where we had a view of the surrounding mountains. And up above Annadel State Park and Sonoma Mountain there was this massive plume of smoke, driven by wind, and you could see tiny little helicopters making tiny little drops. And it looked like it was coming straight into town. So I rushed home and packed up all my earthly belongings that I could, all the expensive climbing, bicycling and fishing gear I accumulated – I later told my parents I was evacuating or going on the best road trip of my life. Then, amid my frenetic efforts to pack, I got a text message from one of our veteran reporters, and it was two words: back fire. At that point people were out on the streets, watching the smoke. It looked like the world was going to end. And in a certain way it had, because we were three days into the fire [and thousands of homes had burned.] It was just a back fire, but it really felt like we were under siege.

California: Reading the paper day after day, I sensed a kind of organic quality to your coverage, of everyone moving almost instinctively in step with the fires and each other. You somehow always had the news I wanted as a community member. Were there any lessons you two learned as an editor and reporter for future breaking news?

Wilkison: I think it’s that you show up. Julie, you’ve said something about that—

Johnson: Everybody showed up. It was just very meaningful to see everyone working so hard.

Wilkison: You couldn’t help but want to work that hard when you saw friends and neighbors, and the losses they had suffered. We had families and dogs in the newsroom who had nowhere else to go—

Johnson: (Patting the couch she was sitting on) I remember Steve Levin, one of our editors, sleeping on this couch for three weeks while his house was under evacuation orders.

California: There must be a sense of unreality now, from October to today, to go through all this as both journalists and community members, and then win the biggest prize in American journalism. But that’s not the capstone, right? This story is ongoing.

Wilkison: This is a wonderful award for our newsroom and our entire newspaper, as well as for the community. It’s a reflection of the tragedy we’ve all gone through, and the response we’ve seen from all sectors, including nonprofits and business. One lesson we took away came from the Valley Fire, which was within our coverage area [Lake County] but not on our front porch. In that case we needed information people could use, and that was even more imperative with these fires. We knew we needed to start asking the hard questions that can’t be put off. That was apparent even on the first day. How were people warned? Did they even get any warning? Where was the help coming from? When would it arrive? And by the way, it didn’t arrive, not for a long time. So who was responsible?

Johnson: And how did the fires start? We still don’t know. We have ideas. But we don’t know with certainty.

Wilkison: It’s remarkable to receive the highest award in journalism for a story that’s still unfolding. We have so many questions left unanswered, we have so much more left to do. This community has been irrevocably transformed. But there are and will be heartening stories coming out of that. As much as we are documenting the extent of the change, we’re also trying to shine a bright light on the heartwarming stories, the stories of people really stepping up.

Johnson: The other moment I’ll remember forever is when people were allowed back into Coffey Park. [The authorities] kept people out for several weeks, and it was all somewhat orchestrated, allowing people back to their home sites. There was a checkpoint you had to go through, and you had to show ID because they were only letting residents and reporters in. There were people everywhere, they were hugging and greeting each other. But there were no homes. Just debris. People were talking and hugging in ashes that were still warm in some cases. And I remember talking to a man who said, “I’ve been so worried about my neighbors, but I had no way of contacting them, because I just knew them from seeing them on the street.” He didn’t know their last names, even though he’d see them almost every day. That was their first chance to reconnect. It was like, “I’ve known Jim for years, I know his house, I know his dog, his habits, but I don’t know how to reach him.” I heard that over and over. People felt an amazing catharsis. They were picking through the ruins together, looking for mementos that they could salvage. There was grief. I was with a family when they found the remains of their dog. But then there was a man who found his wife’s engagement ring. She had to take it off because she was pregnant. She gave birth right after the fires, maybe the Tuesday after they started. So then he found that ring, and he cheered. And everyone in the neighborhood cheered. So it was like a neighborhood again. There just weren’t any houses anymore.

California: Brett, has this changed how you edit? Or Julie, how you report?

Wilkison: I think it’s brought everybody in the newsroom closer together. Going through something as long and difficult as this was has made us stronger as a team, and it showed me how a newsroom can adapt and employ its strengths. Because of the national competition we faced, we were getting scooped on one story or another every day. But we also were landing scoops of our own. And ultimately, our coverage stood out because it reflected that local knowledge and our close connections.

Johnson: I remember a conversation I had when I was coming into the building. There was pressure coming from all these angles: am I getting what I need to be getting, are we doing what we need to do as a newsroom, are we really helping people, because there was this desperate need for information. And then there were all the other media around, though frankly, that was the least of my concerns. But I do remember thinking when anyone got a story that had been on my [to do] list:  Well—I love it here more, and I’m going to be the one who’s staying. So it’s okay not to get everything.

Wilkison: It was also such an honor to get the Pulitzer when there was so much strong work. The first Pulitzer given out was for the Hollywood sexual predator stories, and I just admired those reporters, I thought of them as monster hunters. That kind of company, along with the reporters covering the Russian collusion story, and the Roy Moore editorials and the Rohingya photos—

Johnson: Such huge stories—also the flooding in Texas and Puerto Rico.

Wilkison: Documenting a story that captures the attention of the nation is one of the great satisfactions of this business. I’m just glad we were up to it.

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