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2019 Feature, Medium Newsroom finalist

150 Minutes of Hell: Inside Northern California’s Deadly Fire Tornado

About the Project

The scope and ferocity of California wildfires has changed radically over the past two years: Dozens of people have been killed, records for devastation have been shattered, and suburban neighborhoods — even entire towns — have been leveled.

July’s Carr Fire, however, brought something even more frightening. What began as a dangerous but rather ordinary inferno in the northern reaches of the state spawned a fire tornado the likes of which California had never seen, a phenomenon that offered a warning about the horrors the warming climate can unleash.

With “150 Minutes of Hell,” reporter Lizzie Johnson worked with Chronicle editors, photographers, videographers, graphic artists, producers and developers to construct a narrative that took readers inside the tornado as it swept into the city of Redding three days after the blaze ignited. The white-knuckle story revealed the terror, the tragedy and the heroism of that day.

From its beginning, the project was conceptualized as a digital narrative weaving together the stories of victims and survivors with videos, photos, graphics, maps and audio recordings in an interactive display. Storyboarding preceded the first full draft, and as new photos, maps and videos came in, the drafts were rewritten to better tell the story in a holistic way.

The project features animated maps that follow the paths of the characters and the tornado. It also presents video obtained from first responders and survivors, coupled with audio of 911 calls placed from within feet of the flames. An animated graphic explains how the tornado formed, and a progress bar tracks its rapid spread as some characters escape its wrath, while others die in the flames.

Though the team’s primary focus was the project itself, much of the planning went into promoting “150 Minutes of Hell” on other platforms. The Chronicle’s social team was involved in the project from the beginning and created assets for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Instagram Stories. The newsletter team built a campaign that featured a letter from Johnson to subscribers explaining how she reported the story. A second, streamlined version of the project was built specifically for the SFChronicle mobile app.

The project ends with “Aftermath,” a documentary-style video by The Chronicle’s Guy Wathen. It features interviews with some of the characters and drone video of the scorched earth left in the fire tornado’s path.

We are proud to nominate “150 Minutes of Hell” for ONA’s Feature award.