2021 Breaking News, Small/Medium Newsroom winner

Northern California’s Wildfire Siege

Judges comments

This breaking news story broke over and over, requiring an unusual stamina for this newsroom. It was harrowing reporting and excellent presentation, including powerful visuals and data, with an important focus on service journalism.

About the Project

If there’s a typical breaking news story, this wasn’t it. This was a cascading disaster that unfolded not in an hour or a day, but over two months, relentlessly.

Starting in mid-August, a siege of dry lightning unleashed fires unprecedented even by California standards. Flames blasted into rural towns and cities. Smoke choked the sky. By season’s end, 9,600 fires had burned a record-setting 4.4 million acres, destroyed 10,000-plus homes and businesses, and killed 33 people.

Though the stage had been set by drought, climate change and government failure, California was not prepared. There weren’t enough firefighters and there wasn’t sufficient housing for evacuees, due in part to pandemic restrictions. But the newsroom was prepared, after spending the previous three years learning how to quickly reorganize all departments when large wildfires ignited.

The Chronicle staff — while covering a pandemic and an election and coping with the restrictions of remote work — documented the fires aggressively, 24 hours a day, with a varied and innovative array of journalism that gave readers critical information while raising difficult questions about the state’s future.

This included:
– On-the-ground reporting and a drumbeat of enterprise and investigative work.
– Vivid photography and videography.
– Nonstop “live updates” and news alerts.
– Interactive tools including fire, air-quality and power-outage trackers.
– Podcasts and social media delivered in real-time from the field.
– Explainers on what readers needed to know to stay safe.
– Deep narrative storytelling that illuminated the human costs.

Though this was a breaking story that spread over months, it ignited quickly one windy night.

In the early hours of Aug. 19, a few days after the first dry lightning strikes, high winds pushed the LNU Lightning Complex fire into Vacaville, a city of nearly 100,000 some 50 miles north of San Francisco. Within minutes of the rapid spread, Chronicle editors were sending reporters and photographers to the scene and producers were pushing updates to readers.

At the same time, more than 100 miles to the south, the CZU Lightning Complex tore through communities in the coastal Santa Cruz Mountains. The newsroom’s interactive Fire Tracker signaled the spread while reporters started posting updates online.

By day’s end, The Chronicle had published more than a dozen stories, including an on-the-ground account of the Santa Cruz Mountains inferno; a scene piece from the Russian River area in the North Bay about communities exhausted from repeated evacuations; and a look at the fire impact to businesses already crushed by the pandemic.

That full-newsroom effort was just the first day of months of wall-to-wall coverage that made Northern California safer during a deadly year.

We are proud to nominate our coverage of California’s most destructive wildfire siege for the Online Journalism Award for Breaking News.