2022 Explanatory Reporting, Small Newsroom finalist

The Burning Issue

About the Project

Wildfire season in North America is lasting longer and burning nearly 10 times as many acres as it did 30 years ago. As these disasters worsen, we’ve seen fires reshape communities and economies across the West. In the first half of 2021, with another year of record drought setting the stage for a severe wildfire season, Grist committed itself to carrying out an in-depth, six-month-long reporting initiative to cover all aspects of worsening wildfires.

The project – known as The Burning Issue – included breaking news coverage, explainers, long-form features, expert-written commentary, and a limited-run weekly newsletter. This sprawling compilation of work was tied together visually with graphics, illustration, and a custom, data-heavy series page.

Grist’s reporting and analysis provided readers insight on wildfire impacts, policy, science, and management. Here is a look at a few of the stories produced:

· How drought and fires are driving a recent uptick in Valley Fever cases, a fungal-based disease that lurks in soil and is likely carried by smoke.
· A profile of Ashland, Oregon, a former logging town torn apart by the Timber Wars that has since become a model for finessing the politics of forest management.
· An investigation into how wildfires threaten to unravel California’s climate progress – a deep dive into the state’s flawed carbon credits system.
· How federal agencies are failing their wildland firefighters – a personal essay from a veteran hotshot.
· A look at how wildfires are shifting demographics, as low-income families find themselves unable to rebuild after disaster – a story done in collaboration with Colorado Public Radio.
· Commentary from a fire scientist proposing that we have entered a new epoch: The “Pyrocene,” a planetary fire age.
· Reporting on how insurance companies are starting to renege policies for homes in fire-risk areas. State policymakers are fighting to stop them.
· Scientists and community leaders are racing to carry out forest projects to reduce the risk of wildfires. But in many places, it is too late – projects are burning up before they can even start.

The Burning Issue’s limited-run newsletter provided an additional source of wildfire news for Grist readers. One issue focused on the misuse of the “acres burned” statistic, and the need to be more nuanced in how we define and categorize certain fires. Others examined the recent increase in wildfires in the Midwest; how blazes contaminate drinking water sources; policy changes that have made it easier for Indigenous communities to do prescribed burns; and the obsession with wildfire suppression. The newsletter also gave Grist a platform to showcase its work being created as part of the newsroom’s broader wildfire reporting initiative.

And the package’s landing page became more than just a place to collect stories. Real-time data and graphics made it a regular stop for readers interested in learning how the 2021 wildfire season compared to previous years, what the suppression and damage costs to date, and the largest fires burning in the U.S. on any given day.