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If It Burns, It Earns
November 15, 2003
By Ernest Partridge, The Crisis Papers

Watch a TV report of a distant conflagration, and you will hear meaningless names of unfamiliar places. Are the reports accurate? How would you know? Those place names are just empty words to you. But golly gee!, just look at those flames and all that smoke! And looky-there, that fire sure flattened that house, didn’t it?

Now that pretty blonde reporter is going to interview the owners of that late house. I’ll bet they will tell us they are sorry they lost the house. 

Zap to the next channel. They are going to interview a fire-fighter. Do you ‘spose he’ll tell us that he’s bone tired, and that he’s “never seen anything like it”?

Your on-the-spot local TV news team in action!

But suppose you have been ordered to leave your home and are camped out in a refugee center, or a motel, or the home of a friend or relative. You will search desperately for news of your town and your neighborhood. Those place names will have urgent meaning to you as you wonder: Just where is the front of the fire line? In what direction is it moving? Which areas have been consumed, which spared, which are in immediate danger?

By the end of October, over 100,000 southern Californians were anxiously searching for scraps of information that would indicate whether or not they still had a home. They were all cruelly betrayed by the TV stations that are licensed to “serve in the public interest.”

I know. I was one of those refugees.

Eventually, some of us found relief from our frustration as we learned of a couple of informative web sites. Where hundreds of “professional reporters” and multimillion-dollar budgets failed, the volunteers at a local web site, and at another site a retired fire fighter and his son, succeeded.

Therein hangs a tale – and a case study and indictment of the condition of American mass media.

 
Setting the stage:

There were more than a dozen wild fires last month in southern California. Together they consumed three-quarters of a million acres – an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. A total of 3,577 homes were destroyed and 22 individuals lost their lives. “Our” fire, the so-called “Old Fire,” was the third largest, burning 91 thousand acres, and leveling a thousand homes and businesses. (Photos at The Crisis Papers (scroll down) and Crest Forest Fire District).

To better understand The Old Fire, and the dismal performance of the local TV, it would be helpful to describe the location of the fire and the coverage.

The San Bernardino Range runs east to west. . The fire took place on the western end, and directly north of the city of San Bernardino. In this affected area, the elevation of the primary (southern) ridge is generally within the range of 5000 to 6000 feet. Just below (south) and parallel to the ridge is State Route 18 (“Rim of the World Highway”), which was to play a crucial role in the battle against the fire.

While there are a few inhabited areas on the south slope of the ridge – Rim Forest, Sky Forest and Running Springs – most of the mountain population lives north of the ridge, in the communities (west to east) of Cedarpines Park, Crestline, Twin Peaks, Blue Jay, and Lake Arrowhead. The population of this region is about 50,000. The eastward flank of the fire was stopped short of the resort community of Big Bear Lake.

A map of the region, and of the area that was burned, may be found at this link.  In our intensive viewing of the TV coverage of the fires, involving numerous channels on the cable, we rarely encountered a map of the affected areas. 

The fire was started Saturday morning, October 25, apparently by two arsonists still at large. The Point of origin was the base of Old Waterman Canyon Road (hence “The Old Fire”), immediately north of the City of San Bernardino. At the time, strong Santa Ana winds were blowing from the north and down the mountain. The wind-borne cinders set fire to and destroyed about three hundred private homes in the city. . The wind, devastating to the city, worked to the advantage of the fire crews on the mountain, for it slowed the advance on the up-slope edge and blew the cinders back into the burnt area. Still, the advance was inexorable. 

The firefighters were determined to make a stand at the Route 18 fire line. If that line were to be breached, all Hell could break loose, and 15,000 homes and businesses would be in grave peril. For this was not an ordinary forest in ordinary conditions. Due to a bark beetle infestation and several years of severe drought, about a third of the trees were dead, brown corpses – and potential torches. (See my “Elegy for a Ponderosa Pine Tree”). Also, the last time that rain had fallen on the mountain was June10. It was widely assumed that once the fire crossed the ridge and was into the forest, it would be almost impossible to stop it short of the high desert to the north. And yet it did cross the ridge, and was nonetheless kept away from most of the populated areas, thanks to the heroic efforts of the fire fighters.

Late Saturday afternoon, a mandatory evacuation was ordered, and about two hours later, with our truck filled with “indispensables,” we drove off the mountain. As we did, the expansive red glow on the smoke beyond the ridge looked like the fires of the Apocalypse – a sight that we will never forget. We were to spend the next twelve days at the home of a cousin in Ventura, some 100 miles away from the fire, understandably with eyes glued to the TV screen as we devoured “news” about the impending fate of our home.


The Local TV Stations Drop the Ball

On Tuesday night, a friend told us of a mountain community website (www.rimoftheworld.net), that was posting news and bulletin boards for residents. There we encountered devastating “news.” “It’s a fact,” we read, our neighborhood (specifically and unambiguously identified) was totally destroyed. The report, from someone willing to post her name, was allegedly received by this individual directly from one of our neighbors.

Even so, we were willing to hold on to a glimmer of hope until we received solid confirmation from an independent choice.

Then the TV chimed in, and gave us a steady stream of bad news without a scrap of reassurance. We saw spectacular images of houses ablaze and an inferno on a mountain side, all over the bold caption “Cedarpines Park” – our town. Still more scenes of a conflagration of houses and trees, identified as “Valley of Enchantment” – an area directly down slope and upwind of our area, thus heading straight for our house.

With all this and no contrary reports, by Wednesday night, we gave up all hope and notified our friends that we had surely lost our home.

Had we depended upon TV alone, with no e-mail or internet, we would likely have continued to believe the worst on into the weekend.

However, that early bulletin board posting turned out to be false – about the only false report we were to encounter on the internet. Also false: those captions on the TV screen. 

On Sunday, November 2, we were allowed back on the mountain for a brief inspection. Through Valley of Enchantment and up to our house, there were no signs of the fire. Final report: No fire whatever in the Valley of Enchantment, and thirteen houses lost on the far side of Cedarpines Park. Thanks to the determined and valiant effort of the fire fighters, our house and immediate neighborhood were completely undamaged, though the fire had come to with 100 yards of the houses.

No doubt, thousands of other mountain residents, in their various places of refuge, suffered similar needless agonies as they watched those false reports on the TV screen, as each channel competed to supply a spectacle-hungry audience with the most astonishing images, padded with a dreary succession of “human interest” interviews with weary fire-fighters, and with residents amidst the ashes of their demolished homes.

Apparently the prime directive of “info-tainment” prevailed: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”


“Ranger Al” and rimoftheworld.net to the rescue.

Thanks to the internet, and to the dedicated volunteers who set up and maintained “unofficial” websites, many of us mountain refugees were spared hours or even days of needless agony. 

We were personally made aware of these sites through an e-mail from a thoughtful friend. These sites were not publicized and were not listed by the commercial media – with a couple of exceptions (such as the Los Angeles Times), and then only after the emergency had passed.

We first encountered a mountain community web site, www.rimoftheworld.net, which displayed a fire map and featured bulletin boards posting thousands of personal messages. The devastating false notice on Tuesday that our neighborhood had been destroyed was followed by two days without contrary reports. But then, on Thursday the 30th, the eye-witness notices began to appear stating that our house, specifically identified, was intact.

By then, we had been introduced to www.fireupdate.com, the website of “Ranger Al” – Neil Alwin Nottingham, a retired fire fighter, and his son Dacy. As he “ranged” about the mountain collecting information, Nottingham would send reports throughout the day about the extent and direction of the fire, and listing structures that had been destroyed. Ranger Al’s reports, and the less-than-reliable postings at rimoftheworld.net, were the only means that many of the anxious residents had to learn the fate of their homes.

Ironically, for a brief while, Ranger Al was denied access to the Lake Arrowhead region. It seems he didn’t have a “press pass,” and was thus not officially regarded as “media.” He was stopped by a clueless state highway cop who was only doing his job. Meanwhile, the essentially useless “legitimate media” folks were moving about freely. Soon a Los Angeles Times reporter got a pass for Ranger Al, and he was back in business.

Where hundreds of professional TV reporters with budgets in the multi-millions had failed, a retired fire fighter and his son succeeded. On their own time, with no financial assistance, and motivated solely by compassion and community loyalty, "Ranger Al" offered the residents a steady stream of the sort of urgent information that the TV stations deemed unworthy of their viewers’ attention. 


The Upshot

At The Crisis Papers, we have repeatedly complained that the commercial media have lost sight of the concept and the practice of “public service.” They “serve” their sponsors, their stockholders, and the political hacks that keep them on Easy Street. As for the public, the media policy appears to be, “serve ‘em bread, circuses, Lacy Peterson, Kobe Bryant, Brittney, Private Jessica, etc., ad nauseam, and they will be pacified.” The guiding principle of local TV reporting remains, “if it bleeds, it leads” – or in this case, “if it burns, it earns.”

It takes the imminent loss of home and all possessions, along with the desperate need for news about the unfolding catastrophe, to cause one to fully appreciate the extent of the failure of the commercial broadcast media to serve the public – as they agreed to do, when they applied for their licenses.

Quite by chance, we experienced a week of excruciating anxiety followed by unspeakable relief, and through all this we were given a vivid lesson in the capacity of local TV reporting to manipulate, sensationalize, distort, and even falsify essential information about an ongoing catastrophe.  In "The Old Fire" coverage we encountered first-hand the type of irresponsibility that also characterizes corporate media’s presentation of national and international events: images that eclipse information, and "personalities" that crowd out competent analysis.

It was all so unnecessary, for it would not be all that difficult for the TV “reporters” and “news divisions” to clean up their act. 

In the case of “The Old Fire,” the TV stations could have recruited from among the mountain refugees, some knowledgeable mountain residents to accompany the reporters and confirm the place names. Instead, they carelessly reported the ongoing destruction of areas that in fact were untouched by the fire, heedless of the anguish that this might be causing amongst the refugees.

In addition, the media could set up and aggressively publicize (perhaps with captions and screen “crawls”) their own websites where they could report the specific addresses of lost structures, and convey timely messages for residents. Surely they could spare a few reporters to roam the evacuated areas and dispatch status reports of specific interest to the residents. Ranger Al pointed the way, and performed a valuable service. Why did it take a volunteer to do this?

What will it take to get the broadcast media to take their public responsibilities seriously? Maybe a few cancelled broadcast licenses would serve as a wake-up call.  An abundance of San Bernardino mountain residents should be more than willing to challenge the licenses of the local Los Angeles TV stations that so spectacularly botched this opportunity to serve the public.

But don’t expect any commercial broadcasting licenses to be in peril, as long as Baby Powell and his two GOP pals control the Federal Communications Commission.

 
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).

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