It Burns, It Earns
By Ernest Partridge, The
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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"