Covering Wildfires

Do your research. Ask who your story is for. Report on recovery and aftermath.

Editor’s note: This tip sheet was compiled following a webinar on October 19, 2020, featuring journalists Lizzie Johnson, Peter Drought and Lauren Markham, moderated by Karen Percy.

Watch the full event video here:

Do your research 

Read about wildfires before you cover them: their history, their behaviors, their impact and ways to fight them

Alongside the literature, get up to speed with the pragmatics. Make sure you understand the training firefighters have gone through, and the processes and practices they follow. Equally, read relevant legislation, guidance and protocols put in place by communities and councils. 

Once you’ve educated yourself, ensure that you have the necessary accreditation to cover wildfires—access varies by territory and agency. Additionally, it’s important to become fluent in using safety equipment and to have regular training sessions with local firefighting agencies.

Name your audience 

Are you covering breaking news or writing a longer-form piece? Is your story designed to educate those from other regions about wildfires in a specific territory, or is your job to rapidly pass information to local communities who are at risk? Remember, journalism is a public service.

Don’t think about your sources as characters

Avoid reducing sources to characters who can fill a hole in your story. Interviewees who have lost their homes, livelihoods or loved ones might feel all they have left is their personal story — telling it inaccurately will add pain atop of pain. 

Ensure, therefore, that you’re infusing your reporting with compassion and complexity. Give readers a nuanced insight into the breadth of people’s experiences. Help them envisage how it feels to have your life disrupted or overturned. 

Ask sensitive questions

When you’re interviewing someone who is in a traumatic situation, ask yourself how much consent they are in a position to give if they are dashing from their home. Consequently, at the start of an interview, it’s important to place great emphasis on gaining informed consent, even if you’re working on a tight deadline.

Ask clear questions. Allow the interviewee time to digest these questions and be careful to shift your focus beyond the fire, and beyond their trauma. This will leave you with a richer story.

Additionally be aware that many of those impacted by wildfires may be dealing with the media for the first time. Therefore, they might struggle to communicate what has happened to them, or conceive what it means to appear in your publication — take the time to explain this

Contextualize wildfires amid the broader picture of climate change

The more we cover wildfires as isolated events with clear boundaries, the more we abstract climate change. Storytelling needs to depict what it’s like to live with climate change as a continually developing crisis, and reveal the ways in which lives are being permanently altered. 

You may find yourself reporting in a community that is generally skeptical of climate change, though, or who want to focus instead on when and how they can rebuild their properties. The best approach in this situation isn’t to be heavy-handed, or overburden your stories with the opinions of experts. Instead, find people who are really living the experience of climate change. Put a clear and vivid example before your audience's eyes. Say: this is what it looks like; this is how you could be impacted. Once you have a powerful narrative, you can successfully fold in necessary facts and statistics.

Covering wildfires isn’t just about fires: these are deeper stories about people’s lives. So make sure to change the formula to keep people engaged. And be aware that, though there are common trends and patterns, no story is the same. 

Focus on aftermath and recovery

Reporters are sent to cover wildfires when the flames are burning. But once it’s all rubble and char they tend to leave, and communities can feel betrayed. How should journalists think about their responsibilities to people once the immediate crisis is over? How can they take the longer view?

First, it’s important to appreciate that trauma, catastrophe and disaster are long-term issues. When arriving in a community, seek out local leaders and let them know you understand this. If you are in a position to make a promise, tell them that you will come back and talk to them about issues they think others should know about. The ripple effect of a wildfire is broad and long-lasting.

Practice self-care

Ensure that you communicate with an editor or colleague, or that you have someone you can confide in who understands what you’re going through. 

Adhere to a self-care plan. Some things you might consider include: firmly delineating between your personal and professional lives, having an album of uplifting images on your phone, curating a soothing playlist, and exercising. More tips on self-care amid disaster.

When reporting on the trauma of other people, it’s common to neglect yourself or belittle your own experience. But it’s vital to acknowledge and mitigate the risks of vicarious traumatization.

Below, we have assembled additional resources for journalists covering wildfires and their aftermath:

For more resources, including tip sheets on self-care, trauma-informed interviewing and covering disaster, visit our resources page here.

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