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2018 Breaking News, Medium Newsroom finalist

Wine Country Wildfires

About the Project

In early October, Northern California’s Wine Country became the site of the worst wildfire disaster in state history. The fires killed 45 people, burned nearly 9,000 buildings and blackened a region more than eight times the size of San Francisco.

In a year marked by several natural disasters, this one was uniquely difficult to cover: There was no time to prepare for the onslaught. Numerous fires erupted almost simultaneously in the middle of the night. Officials had difficulty disseminating information, making credible news that much more critical. And the emergency continued unabated for several days.

Through it all, SFChronicle.com provided the public with immediate, exhaustive and reliable information, serving as a critical and potentially life-saving source of news.

The first 24 hours of coverage included rolling updates, stories to counter unfounded rumors, alerts about new evacuations and the only interactive map with block-by-block fire information.

On the front lines, reporters and photographers had to deal with the chaos of 21 separate fires with uncertain and changing boundaries in the dead of night. These fires, some so powerful they created their own tornadoes, were unlike any we had covered. They jumped six-lane freeways and devoured tract-home neighborhoods.

Our first entry in this category is our Wine Country Wildfires landing page. It launched on the first day of coverage and continues to be updated. It includes every major story from the fires’ first week.

The second page is our interactive map. We launched it on the first day of coverage and continued to update it for weeks. Our readers used it as a real-time resource to keep their families safe, and its success as a simple tool led us to remove all paywall restrictions and reuse the code for a Southern California wildfires map two months later.

Our major first-week narrative story – “Firestorm’s First, Fatal Hours” – is the third submission. It traces the start of the fires across the region, from wind-blown sparks to infernos destroying everything in their paths.

The fourth selection is an interactive photo essay of the wildfires’ first days. We kept the design simple, creating space for the 114 photos, many taken from within a few feet of the burn lines.

The fifth and final element is our “Resolve Amid Ruin” video shot in the destroyed Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa.

Our overall first-week coverage focused on breaking news but included investigations and the beginnings of larger projects. A story about the cell-phone alert system eventually led to the FCC making it easier to send targeted messages – a decision the agency had delayed for more than a year. Legislators demanded hearings into the mutual aid response system after we used data to prove only a fraction of requested aid arrived in those first hours. Our probe into the fires’ potential causes led to new state safety rules that had been postponed for 10 years.

We proudly submit this work for your consideration.