2018 Breaking News, Medium Newsroom finalist

Thomas Fire Coverage

About the Project

During the first week of December, six large wildfires broke out across Southern California, including the Thomas Fire, the largest ever in state history. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, hundreds of structures burned and schools all over the region were closed because of choking smoke.

Our team kept listeners and readers up to date on all the latest news: evacuations, road and school closures, air quality and weather reports. Reporters elevated the voices of people who were hardest hit: residents who lost their homes, who narrowly escaped, and first responders from around the country. KPCC reporters tweeted, shot video, and produced Instagram stories from the field.

Most importantly, we asked the audience what THEY wanted to know. We deployed the Hearken tool and told our audience we would answer ANY question they had about the fire. Hundreds of people reached out. Two reporters were assigned to handle the incoming questions. As soon as they learned answers, they shared the information online, on air and wrote back to the person who had contacted us. We answered every single question.

When a Facebook group devoted to the fire formed, we embedded a reporter in the group who solicited questions and reported answers for the group’s members. We also invited the moderators of the Facebook group to call in to our live call in show, Airtalk with Larry Mantle.

The more questions we answered, the more patterns we noticed. We realized that people were having a tough time finding information from emergency response agencies, so we focused our digital efforts there, writing many “how-to” posts about evacuations, emergency alerts and road closures. We also tested different air masks and got expert advice on which one people should use.

Our coverage brought people the latest on the unfolding disaster but also helped them gain a deeper understanding of how to prepare for the fire next time. Our newsroom also learned a valuable lesson- making ourselves available to answer audience questions in real time was incredibly rewarding. We were the first newsroom to deploy Hearken in a breaking news situation and we will definitely do it again.