November 22, 2017
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Chasing smoke: How Reveal reported on wildfires

By Emmanuel Martinez


I’ll admit it, I was scared. I was going to report on wildfires. It was my first reporting trip where something dangerous could happen. But we had Eric Sagara, who had reported on dozens of wildfires and knew how to keep us safe.

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Eric, Ike Sriskandarajah and I were trying to find out why wildfires are getting bigger, more expensive to fight and closer to where people live. In late July, the three of us spent a week on the road in a cramped SUV, bound for places that had been touched by devastating fires to see firsthand how firefighters and their communities battle blazes. Our first stop was the Sand Fire in Southern California.

Our reporting was featured on a recent episode of Reveal that focused on how wildfire risks are reaching beyond the West and how a policy of suppression increased the potential for larger, more destructive fires. We dug deeper in our story about the increased threat of wildfire as more U.S. homes are built in areas that bump up against wildland. We included an app that shows wildfire vulnerability throughout the country, state by state, month to month.

Here, we bring you more images from our journey into wildfire zones, what we’re calling America’s Ring of Fire.

Firefighters were in the thick of battle with the Sand Fire – which raged in late July through the Santa Clarita Valley, north of Los Angeles – when Reveal arrived at the scene. Before it was contained, the Sand Fire burned more than 40,000 acres, destroyed 18 structures and killed one person.Credit: Stuart Palley for Reveal

Firefighters were in the thick of battle with the Sand Fire – which raged in late July through the Santa Clarita Valley, north of Los Angeles – when Reveal arrived at the scene. Before it was contained, the Sand Fire burned more than 40,000 acres, destroyed 18 structures and killed one person.Credit: Stuart Palley for Reveal

The day we got to the Sand Fire, nearly 3,000 firefighters were working to suppress and contain the blaze. Crews came from throughout California and across the country. We met firefighters from Compton, Newport Beach and other cities. The conflagration fed on dried chaparral.Credit: Stuart Palley for Reveal

The day we got to the Sand Fire, nearly 3,000 firefighters were working to suppress and contain the blaze. Crews came from throughout California and across the country. We met firefighters from Compton, Newport Beach and other cities. The conflagration fed on dried chaparral.Credit: Stuart Palley for Reveal

Homes in the wildland-urban interface – where development intertwines with nature – are more susceptible to wildfires. That’s why defensible space, between houses and vegetation, is so important in these areas. Nationally, more than a third of new homes built since 2000 are in WUI areas.Credit: Stuart Palley for Reveal

Homes in the wildland-urban interface – where development intertwines with nature – are more susceptible to wildfires. That’s why defensible space, between houses and vegetation, is so important in these areas. Nationally, more than a third of new homes built since 2000 are in WUI areas.Credit: Stuart Palley for Reveal

This was the first wildfire for my colleague Ike Sriskandarajah and myself, so we relied on fellow reporter Eric Sagara (pictured at right, in tan shirt) to stay safe because he had trained in wildland firefighting. We, like firefighters, wore clothing made from Nomex – a fire-retardant fabric. We wore long pants, long sleeves, helmets and goggles.Credit: Emmanuel Martinez/Reveal

This was the first wildfire for my colleague Ike Sriskandarajah and myself, so we relied on fellow reporter Eric Sagara (pictured at right, in tan shirt) to stay safe because he had trained in wildland firefighting. We, like firefighters, wore clothing made from Nomex – a fire-retardant fabric. We wore long pants, long sleeves, helmets and goggles.Credit: Emmanuel Martinez/Reveal

Matt Millar (right), a program director for the Flagstaff, Arizona, fire department, tells Reveal reporters Eric Sagara (center) and Ike Sriskandarajah about the $10 million bond Flagstaff residents passed in 2012. The bond has funded tree-thinning projects in the ponderosa forest that surrounds the city.Credit: Emmanuel Martinez/Reveal

Matt Millar (right), a program director for the Flagstaff, Arizona, fire department, tells Reveal reporters Eric Sagara (center) and Ike Sriskandarajah about the $10 million bond Flagstaff residents passed in 2012. The bond has funded tree-thinning projects in the ponderosa forest that surrounds the city.Credit: Emmanuel Martinez/Reveal

An unhealthy forest is known as a dog-hair thicket because it is dense, like the hair on the back of a dog. This forest is prone to fire because the smaller, thinner trees are more likely to burn and allow fires to climb. Once a fire gets into the tops of trees, it becomes what is known as a crown fire, which spreads by hopping from tree to tree.Credit: Emmanuel Martinez/Reveal

An unhealthy forest is known as a dog-hair thicket because it is dense, like the hair on the back of a dog. This forest is prone to fire because the smaller, thinner trees are more likely to burn and allow fires to climb. Once a fire gets into the tops of trees, it becomes what is known as a crown fire, which spreads by hopping from tree to tree.Credit: Emmanuel Martinez/Reveal

Under natural conditions, a healthy forest is supposed to burn every two to seven years, killing the smaller, weaker vegetation, while leaving the stronger, older trees intact. Scientists harken to pre-settlement times, when a healthy forest was described as savannah-like. It was where, as one official said, “a horse could run at 40 miles an hour without hitting a tree.”Credit: Emmanuel Martinez/Reveal

Under natural conditions, a healthy forest is supposed to burn every two to seven years, killing the smaller, weaker vegetation, while leaving the stronger, older trees intact. Scientists harken to pre-settlement times, when a healthy forest was described as savannah-like. It was where, as one official said, “a horse could run at 40 miles an hour without hitting a tree.”Credit: Emmanuel Martinez/Reveal

In the forest near Flagstaff, orange marks signal crews to spare these older, established trees. That procedure runs counter to traditional logging, in which the older, more marketable trees are harvested. Crews work to create what they call a “clumpy-groupy” landscape, leaving open spaces between clusters of trees.Credit: Emmanuel Martinez/Reveal

In the forest near Flagstaff, orange marks signal crews to spare these older, established trees. That procedure runs counter to traditional logging, in which the older, more marketable trees are harvested. Crews work to create what they call a “clumpy-groupy” landscape, leaving open spaces between clusters of trees.Credit: Emmanuel Martinez/Reveal

In 2010, the Schultz Fire burned more than 15,000 acres the Coconino National Forest outside Flagstaff, Arizona. City voters passed a $10 million bond to thin the forest near Flagstaff to limit potential damage from future fires.Credit: Emmanuel Martinez/Reveal

In 2010, the Schultz Fire burned more than 15,000 acres the Coconino National Forest outside Flagstaff, Arizona. City voters passed a $10 million bond to thin the forest near Flagstaff to limit potential damage from future fires.Credit: Emmanuel Martinez/Reveal

In addition to thinning trees with chainsaws, crews also use controlled fires to clear forests. Wally Covington (right), director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, talks to Reveal reporters Eric Sagara (left) and Ike Sriskandarajah at the Fort Valley Experimental Forest near Flagstaff. It’s one of the oldest ecological restoration experiments in the Western United States. Researchers are studying how to safely and naturally reintroduce fire into the forest.Credit: Emmanuel Martinez/Reveal

In addition to thinning trees with chainsaws, crews also use controlled fires to clear forests. Wally Covington (right), director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, talks to Reveal reporters Eric Sagara (left) and Ike Sriskandarajah at the Fort Valley Experimental Forest near Flagstaff. It’s one of the oldest ecological restoration experiments in the Western United States. Researchers are studying how to safely and naturally reintroduce fire into the forest.Credit: Emmanuel Martinez/Reveal

Wally Covington carries a cross section of a ponderosa pine tree that began growing in the 1600s to demonstrate the importance of fire in forests. The tree slice shows the story of forest policy over 500 years. It’s lined with fire scars until 1876 when most natural fires stopped. After that, the tree had to compete for nutrients, making it more vulnerable to disease, drought and more destructive fires. Millions of trees throughout the country are growing under these conditions.

Wally Covington carries a cross section of a ponderosa pine tree that began growing in the 1600s to demonstrate the importance of fire in forests. The tree slice shows the story of forest policy over 500 years. It’s lined with fire scars until 1876 when most natural fires stopped. After that, the tree had to compete for nutrients, making it more vulnerable to disease, drought and more destructive fires. Millions of trees throughout the country are growing under these conditions.