Danger from California wildfires pushes newsrooms to unite

FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2019, photo Silas Lyons poses for a picture. Lyons is the executive editor for USA TODAY Network newsrooms in Northern California, Nevada and Utah. (Ron Holman/The Record Searchlight via AP)

REDDING, California — After the Carr Fire tore through our community of Redding, California, last summer, we mostly avoided the "what if" question.

Lines of cars tried to get out of the neighborhoods near the Sacramento River. A fire whirl the likes of which few had ever seen — a towering beast with 143-mph winds, the strength of an EF3 tornado — bore down on us.

It stopped just short of the cars that crept along, bumper to bumper.

What if it hadn't stopped?

That was in late July, and by November, we had an answer.

When the Camp Fire struck, people in Paradise, 85 miles south of Redding, didn't have time to get out. The cars were found in burned-out lines. Eight bodies were recovered from vehicles, two others were found near vehicles, and dozens of other people never made it out of their houses.

In all, 85 people perished. This is how bad it can be.

Tragedy, as we all know, brings people together. Journalists are no exception.

After the Paradise fire , Sacramento Bee Editor Lauren Gustus drove to Chico to meet with David Little, then editor of the Chico Enterprise-Record. Gustus is the top editor for McClatchy's western papers, and the Enterprise-Record is part of MediaNews, which publishes papers throughout the state.

They decided the critical issues surrounding wildfire in California were big enough to merit an ambitious partnership.

Soon the USA TODAY Network, where I work, and The Associated Press joined. We would tackle the issue from several critical perspectives. Our goal is to illuminate problems and point to potential solutions. We wanted to spark life-and-death policy discussions and to inspire Californians to get involved, to hold their leaders accountable and protect their own families and communities.

Two weeks ago, the first collaborative stories revealed the extent to which construction standards determine the destruction or survival of homes. These articles incorporated sophisticated data analysis, identifying 10 California communities at high risk as the next dry season arrives.

The second half of our reporting work is focused on how we get out.

In California, there are no statewide standards for evacuation planning , and most of the high-risk communities we surveyed had either no plan of their own or had one that was minimal or secret. A data analysis showed many existing exit routes are inadequate.

More traffic jams like those in Redding and Paradise are nearly inevitable, and they will happen throughout the state.

But the problem need not paralyze us.

We hope after reading these stories you'll feel more empowered to take action. California can't afford to live through another year like the one we just had. And we must do better at getting people to safety when the fires do come.


Silas Lyons is the executive editor for USA TODAY Network newsrooms in Northern California, Nevada and Utah. The USA TODAY Network includes The Redding Record Searchlight, The Reno Gazette Journal, The Ventura County Star, The Salinas Californian, The Visalia Times-Delta and The Desert Sun in Palm Springs.

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