This story by Richard Bednarski was recently published in The Xylom, a student-run nonprofit, student-led newsroom exploring the communities influencing and shaped by science. The Sierra Nevada Ally is pleased to have a collaborative publishing partnership with The Xylom.
When I shifted careers to focus on journalism, I knew I wanted to cover the environment and climate change. Long a conservationist, I wanted my reporting to focus on under-told stories. Thus my master’s thesis at the University of Nevada, Reno encompassed both of these beats through the lens of the 2021 Dixie Fire.
This fire burned nearly 1 million acres and acted in ways firefighters have never seen. It jumped fire break lines over and over again. Firefighters remove vegetation and leave behind mineral soil ahead of the fire to build these lines. The fire also leveled two mountain communities. It also happened to burn through the land I grew up in, making it personal.
I wanted my story to reflect both the good and bad aspects of wildfire. Legacy media all too often focuses on large flame photos and burned homes. Often blasting footage on repeat several days after it was created, providing a false sense to the public that the fire is dangerous, devastating, and out of control. In some cases it is; in many cases, it is not.
I strive to shift the verbiage in my reporting from devastating and catastrophic to include things like good fire and the necessary role it plays in the landscape. This is something that pyrogeographer Zeke Lunder wants the media to do. He operates The Lookout, a fire-focused blog dedicated to educating both the media and public about the nuances of wildfires.
Experiencing the Dixie Fire
I first covered it as an intern for the Reno Gazette-Journal. I covered it a total of five times as a photographer, and each time the story told was a little different.
I photographed firefighters mopping up a backburn. Mopping up means putting out stump fires and hot spots after a fire moves through an area. A back-burn, or firing operation, is the fight fire with fire tactic. When conditions are favorable a fire is ignited ahead of the advancing wildfire front to burn out the fuel load. When the approaching fire reaches this area, the fuels are gone and the fire, in theory, halts forward progress.
The Dixie fire would jump this fire break. It happened during a red flag warning. These warnings are issued when winds are high, humidity is low, and temperatures are hot. This day resulted in the fire burning over 100,000 acres in a single 24-hour period.
My second time reporting on the Dixie Fire was the day after the town of Greenville had burned down. It was hard to see the town in ashes. I had visited the community many times as a child. In a way, seeing this fire was cathartic for me. It helped me process what was happening to my homeland. After Greenville, we headed to Quincy to interview some evacuees from Greenville.
As the summer churned on, the fire grew larger and larger. I would return two more times to cover the fire and focus on evacuees and threatened communities. By now, it was clear the images and reporting I had done would be a perfect fit for my master’s thesis project.
Putting together the puzzle pieces
I knew the Dixie Fire was unprecedented. I knew that the changing climate had a role in the fire’s massive size. I also knew that not all of it was bad. As a journalist, I wanted to showcase how a wildfire could be good.
About a hundred years ago we started extinguishing wildfires as quickly as possible. This is unnatural for many forests. Without regular low-intensity fires, fuel loads quickly build up. Now as the climate is warming, droughts are hotter and drier. This is drying out these fuel loads at an alarming rate. Making them far more flammable.
I reached out to Craig Tucker, the natural resources consultant for the Karuk tribe of northern California and a big advocate for good fire. He works with the Karuk Tribe of Northern California to expand the use of wildfires to manage fuel loads and work with fire instead of against it. Native Americans have long used fire as a cultural tool to live with the landscape.
I interviewed over a dozen people of varying backgrounds. From scientists, and fire managers, to people who lost their homes to the Dixie Fire to get a broader sense of what this fire was about.
I dove deep into weather data to create dynamic data visualizations to illustrate the changing climate. This in-depth reporting included a podcast as well. This multimedia approach allowed me to fully understand the story I wanted to tell.
I sought to leave no stone unturned. Yet, there are always more stones to be found. This story is not over and it is ongoing today as the McKinney Fire across the California-Oregon border and the Oak Fire, burning right across the southwestern boundaries of Yosemite National Park.
These fires are getting a lot of coverage. There is also good reporting across the political spectrum that highlights the use of fire as a management tool helping to slow the growth and limit the damage of fires like these. One thing is certain, wildfires are becoming larger and more aggressive. Climate change is creating more favorable conditions for megafires to swallow up sections of land.
How journalists tell this story requires more education and dedicated reporting. I am lucky to have grown up with wildfire and a father who worked for the Forest Service. Covering wildfires is a nuanced story. These distinctions, I feel, belong in the nut graf of every story.
Things like how low-intensity fire is good for the ecosystem. How controlled burning, or good fire, is something forest managers need to begin using more often.
The nuances are infinite and the story will go on. As I move forward as a journalist, it is my personal goal to approach these details with nuance and devote my time to the good, bad, and ugly of wildfires.
This story is published in partnership with The Xylom, a student-run nonprofit, student-led newsroom exploring the communities influencing and shaped by science. A member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, you can subscribe to their newsletter curating the best science stories with a Southern angle, or donate to support their work.
Born and raised in tiny Quincy, Calif, Richard obtained a B.A. in Anthropology and Photography, in addition to an M.A. in Journalism from the University of Nevada at Reno on the other side of the Sierra Nevada, where he is currently based. His words and photos have appeared in national and regional publications such as USA Today Reno Gazette-Journal, The Progressive, and the Sierra Nevada Ally. When not crafting stories that matter, Richard can be found traveling and camping with his wife and two daughters, tending a garden, baking bread, and playing the banjo.