TV stations covering the wildfires were all over the airwaves and Internet as the blazes caused mass evacuations, destroyed acres of forest and wiped out 600 homes. For many of the people who covered this story, mustering the ability “to keep going” had an emotional component as well. That is particularly true for the Colorado Springs news crews, some of which lived in the Waldo Canyon fire’s path. Now the Colorado Broadcasters Association has produced PSAs in support of the Red Cross and local firefighters.
After a full month covering the worst wildfire season in a decade, local TV reporters in Colorado now are keeping watch on yet other potential disasters — flash floods and mudslides caused by drenching rains.
“We are still on guard,” says Jeff Harris, the news director at KMGH, the Scripps-owned ABC affiliate in Denver (DMA 17).
The deluge since last week — which helped contain the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, the most destructive fire in Colorado history — doesn’t pack the destructive potential the fires did.
But it does create a range of new challenges for Coloradans still reeling from the raging fires — including local TV news teams, particularly those from Denver and Colorado Springs (DMA 90), which have been in full-scale disaster mode for more than four weeks.
“This is what we signed up for as journalists,” Harris says.
Starting with the eruption of the High Point Fire near Fort Collins on June 9, broadcast journalists have rallied to cover the fires, which forced tens of thousands of evacuations and destroyed about 600 homes.
Colorado Springs stations provided continual coverage when residents needed it most, peaking on June 27 when the Waldo Canyon Fire forced 32,000 evacuations.
Denver extended newscasts and added special fire coverage. KMGH, for example, aired 33 additional news hours from June 9 to 27, produced with help from fellow Scripps stations in Tampa, Phoenix and San Diego, Harris says.
Nothing was easy.
KRDO Colorado Springs, News-Press & Gazette’s ABC affiliate, decided to go wall-to-wall when the Waldo Canyon Fire started June 23, causing News Director Michael Sipes to leave his family in Minnesota, and drive “16 hours and 21 minutes” after not being able to get a flight home. Driving overnight, Sipes helped direct fire coverage by listening to a simulcast of the TV coverage on a sister radio station.
KRDO ran 151 hours of news at the height of the fire, he says. Two of the station’s live trucks shot video from a location so close to the heart of the Waldo Canyon Fire that the trucks’ generators were damaged by heat. A mechanic worked overnight to repair them, he says.
With help from six staffers from other Gray-owned stations, CBS affiliate KKTV Colorado Springs aired 130 hours of continual fire coverage that started June 23. The live stream of that report on the station’s website was viewed about 750,000 times.
The station sent out text alerts to its 22,000 subscribers whenever evacuations were ordered. “We heard from at least two families … on the worst night of the fire that our text messages had awakened them and alerted them to get out,” says News Director Liz Haltiwanger.
KKTV also used social media in real time to answer residents’ questions. Its Facebook fan base grew by 85%, she says.
On June 24, the Sunday on which the Waldo Canyon Fire took a turn for the worse, the KUSA Denver sports news team canceled a special planned for the day, heading to Colorado Springs to cover the fire instead.
After logging 14 hours that day covering the fire, one of the reporters was called on to cover the murder of a Denver police officer, says VP of News Patti Dennis.
On the following Tuesday, when the Waldo Canyon fire consumed most of the nearly 350 homes that were burned, the station continued its regular later afternoon newscast until 1 a.m. Coverage resumed three and a half hour later, Dennis says.
Throughout the fires, most of the KUSA staff was dedicated to “play by play.” But Dennis says a couple of reporters were cut loose to find human angles on the devastation.
“None of this is in the handbook they give you,” says Dennis, who also expanded news on Gannett’s KTVD, the MNT station in Denver. “We just had to keep going.”
For many of the people who covered this story, mustering the ability “to keep going” had an emotional component as well. That was particularly true for the Colorado Springs journalists, some of whom lived in the Waldo Canyon fire’s path.
Both Eric Singer, a KRDO anchor, and meteorologist Matt Meister, took just short breaks, no longer than a couple of hours, to check on their families after they were ordered to evacuate their homes, Sipes says. Eleven employees had to leave their homes, though none of them ultimately lost them, he says.
That station also caught some flak during its fire coverage — once when an anchor got teary while reporting the story, and another time for airing aerial photos detailing the evacuation zone and which homes were — or were not — left standing before residents were officially notified.
“This was really emotional for them,” Sipes says.
Haltiwanger says her staff, too, continued to cover the story despite personal losses. The station’s chief photographer worked during his own evacuation, sending live images via a mobile backpack during the process.
The photographer lost his home — but has not stopped working, she says. “He says continuing to work is actually helping him get through this personal loss,” Haltiwanger says.
Denver stations forged more intimate relationships with viewers during the fires as well.
Harris says his station received a large number of calls from individuals asking for information about evacuations and the safety of loved ones. Although the station did not always have the information, staff “made a pact with viewers who called to keep each other appraised of what was going on,” Harris says.
“It was a team effort,” he says. Harris says he has received about 1,000 emails thanking the station for the effort.
The Colorado Broadcasters Association is organizing a statewide fundraiser to support the American Red Cross’s disaster relief efforts in Colorado and the Colorado Professional Fire Fighters Foundation. The CBA has produced PSAs for stations to run.
“The CBA is working … to go beyond reporting on the story and to help these communities rebuild,” says CBA President Justin Sasso.
The way Harris sees it, the coverage — and help — provided by TV stations during the wildfires proves broadcasting’s value at a time of increased competition. While new media is an important means of getting the word out, TV has the ability to sift through all the information users can find online and give the public quickly and clearly what it needs to know, he says.
At the same time, as a member of the community, a TV station has many of the same interests at heart as its viewers, he says.
“Colorado tends to be a very tight-knit state,” he says. “We are all here for a reason.”
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