Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on September 1, 2019.

Beyond Blame

Finally, mainstream media outlets are covering wildfire issues with depth and nuance. How did it happen and what does it mean? 


Over the years, I’ve learned to temper my already low expectations for how the mainstream news media will cover the aftermath of a major wildfire. Too often, they tend to follow a predictable script: A barrage of simplistic and reactionary articles seek to assign blame for the disaster while repeating the false mantra that the fire was “unprecedented” and “unlikely.” Important societal and policy factors that led to the tragedy are almost always ignored. The event is soon forgotten, and in no time the hordes of reporters who swooped in to cover the fire have moved on to the next crisis of the moment. Sound familiar?

As a longtime wildfire safety advocate, my hope for something different—a news media that covers our nation’s wildfire problem with depth and sophistication—was a dream I never thought would come true. The past two years, however, have offered indications that I could be wrong.

I noticed the first glimmers of something new shortly after the 2017 Tubbs Fire in California. The reporters who called to interview me asked questions that didn’t have to do with who was to blame—they asked for details on home preparedness and protection advice, and they wanted to understand the science behind how wildfires ignite homes and commercial structures.

After the deaths of 85 people in the Camp Fire last year, I realized that something really had changed. Not only were reporters asking different kinds of questions, they were digging into the thorny and confounding details of wildfire disasters and investing resources to tell stories in ways I have not witnessed in 20 years of work in wildfire safety.

The Arizona Republic and USA Today ran a report that analyzed nearly 5,000 communities in 11 Western states and found that more than 500 of them faced risks similar to the town of Paradise, California, which was destroyed in the Camp Fire. Journalists from an assortment of outlets worked together on a five-month investigation that determined that one in 12 homes in California is at very high risk for wildfire, and that homes built to California wildfire safety codes survived wildfire at a rate three times higher than homes not built to those codes. The media even produced new digital resources for homeowners and residents, including interactive maps and wildfire tools that calculated home and evacuation risk factors for certain geographic areas. The San Francisco Chronicle assigned a reporter full-time to the wildfire beat.

These efforts have brought the personal stories of survivors and victims to life in new ways, extending our collective attention from what is usually a blip in the 24-hour news cycle to an ongoing national conversation. Increasingly, that conversation is not a blame game, but a nuanced discussion involving property rights, land management, environmental health, public safety, and more.

It’s hard to say what has caused this dramatic shift in coverage—from passive acceptance to channeled outrage—that I’ve observed in media outlets over the last year. Perhaps we’ll look back on California’s devastating wildfires in back-to-back years as the cultural tipping point. Whatever the reason, though, I believe that this higher level of coverage will have profound effects as we move forward. These journalists are holding up a mirror that forces all of us to reflect upon—and hopefully to own and address—our individual pieces of the wildfire problem. It raises the demands for accountability of elected officials, utility companies, insurers, developers, and residents themselves. As a result, it seems that we are finally beginning to see public recognition that the wildfire problem, while complex and difficult, can be solved with action, and that we must begin now before the next fire starts. Let’s hope the trend continues. 

Michele Steinberg is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler