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2014 Breaking News, Large Newsroom finalist

Yarnell Hill Fire

 

About the Project

On June 28, 2013, a lightning storm ignited the Yarnell Hill Fire northwest of Phoenix. Two days later, in the searing heat of a summer afternoon, that brush fire exploded to 13 square miles. Hundreds of people fled the communities of Yarnell, Glen Ilah and Peeples Valley as flames destroyed 127 homes.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots descended into a canyon. There, the wildfire caught up to the 19 firefighters. They deployed their protective shelters. But the wall of fire that rushed over them was so hot it fractured the boulders on the canyon floor.

In an instant, The Arizona Republic, 12 News and azcentral.com were covering three massive breaking news stories simultaneously: an out-of-control fire, a mass evacuation and the tragic deaths of 19 firefighters.

The entry before you defines the principles of our coverage approach and shows a converged news organization in its finest hours:

  • We were there. Other media jumped on this story after it became a mass tragedy. We had been on the fire since early that Sunday. As locals were pulling out of town, we were talking our way around the roadblocks to get in. Reporter Michelle Lee took a photo of the fire on the mountain the same moment the flames overcame the hotshots. We were on the ground, smelling the smoke, standing with firefighters huddled around radios, interviewing the commanders. There would be many storylines in the days ahead, but we would lead, not follow.
  • We were fast, and we were accurate. This was a mobile/social media story. It was a Sunday, and few readers would be in touch throughout the day on desktop computers or in front of their televisions. Our dozens of staffers tweeted throughout the day and into night. In the first hours and days, we provided a continuous stream of Tweets, texts, online updates and email alerts. The flow of information was chaotic, as officials released, updated and reversed details about the fire and the deaths. We reported what we could confirm and made it clear at every stage what information was still fluid.
  • We were comprehensive: The firefighter deaths were not confirmed until 8 p.m. Sunday evening. In addition to the continual online and social media updates and three hours of live, continuous coverage on 12 News, the reporting team mobilized both on the ground and in the newsroom to provide context for the story. That first night, we provided stories about weather conditions that can lead to fire flare-ups that trap firefighters; we told readers about the town of Yarnell and the people who love it. We documented the history of the unusual, city-run hotshot fire crew and spoke with the city’s devastated fire chief. Our columnists and anchors weighed in online, trying to put words to our community’s shared grief. And, of course, our investigative efforts began. Our day two coverage stands as an astonishingly complete picture of what actually occurred, even though official details would not be released for months.
  • We were aggressive. The day after the fire, we started asking for public records. We knew communications would be a key issue in unraveling what happened that day. Those requests were formalized the following day, after the state detailed its plans for an internal investigation. We filed nine public records requests to a half dozen local, state and federal agencies. Our demands included deployment logs, work schedules, command duties, training records and more.
  • We were focused: In addition to the firefighter deaths, hundreds of residents were housed in emergency shelters and the fire continued to burn out of control. These residents needed information on the fire, their homes and their town. We had reporters and photographers dispatched to each shelter, telling the stories of the residents growing increasingly frustrated with a lack of information.
  • We were relentless. In the days immediately following, as the fire was contained, local officials cut off media access to Yarnell. This was not a safety issue, as utility workers and others were allowed in. This was an issue of media control. We fought aggressively, asserting our rights in the field and working with legal counsel to demand access through the county attorney’s office. We got the first public glimpse of the fire scene when one of our reporters was invited into town with a resident. We were able to tell residents what damage had been done and offer a look at what remained. Ultimately, the roadblocks came down, but the fire-scene information available before then came only because of our team.
  • We were sensitive. From the beginning, we vowed to tell the story of all 19 firefighters. Officials didn’t release identities of any of the firefighters until Monday afternoon. By that evening, we had compiled and published online capsule biographies of all 19. We began publishing full obituaries on each firefighter Tuesday. The pursuit required a delicate reporting balance. Many grieving families requested privacy from interviews, wishes we scrupulously respected as a member of the community. At the same time, the community at large cried out to know the men it had lost. Through relatives, friends and records, we told each man’s story.
  • We were comprehensive. In the hours and days following the tragedy, we reported on issues such as Arizona’s wildland management, the impact of a historic drought on fire conditions, the outpouring of grief, the growing charity efforts.

By definition, breaking news happens in the moment. We submit this material with pride not just because it was done in the moment, but because it encapsulates a body of work that could easily have taken weeks instead of days.

The submitted online exhibit includes links to stories for you to scan for a sense of the scope and depth of the coverage, which shows our aggressive watchdog reporting, our environmental expertise and our sensitivity to mourning families and our community at large.

These stories showcase all the principles of significant news reporting, at any time, at any level. But they are captured here in the space of a few dozen remarkable hours.