How journalism fails small towns during (and after) wildfire season

Journalists need to keep a close eye on these stories long after the flames go out because for so many, the flames never really do.

This piece is a part of The Objective’s Science Series and is funded by the National Association of Science Writers’ Peggy Girshman Idea Grants.

While flames were ravaging small communities just days into this summer’s Caldor Fire, most national outlets didn’t pick up coverage until two weeks later, when it started creeping toward South Lake Tahoe.

Despite its wide-ranging impact, the threat to Lake Tahoe became the featured story in most national news stories.

The Caldor Fire was framed as a problem for wealthy vacation homeowners and ski resorts, while ignoring the devastation taking place in nearby rural communities, save for a few lines tucked far down in the article. 

Meanwhile, in the town of Grizzly Flats, which has just over 1,000 residents, more than 400 single-family homes were destroyed in the fire.

It took three months for the fire to be fully contained. It’s now the fifteenth-largest wildfire ever recorded in California and burned over 220,000 acres in the western Sierras. 

Wildfire reporting has become a new subset of journalism as American fire seasons get longer and more devastating each year, especially in drought-affected states like California. However, much of wildfire season coverage has a tendency to gloss over what’s going on in rural communities, leading to confusion over what resources are available to survivors and, ultimately, impacting the policies made to help people when they lose their home or community. 

National media fails to capture who and what’s left behind in smaller communities

Numerous Grizzly Flats residents moved to the town years ago when it was an inexpensive area to own a home, according to Bill Roby, executive director of local grantmaking nonprofit El Dorado Community Foundation.

“Many of the people in Grizzly Flats are retirees living on Social Security,” Roby said. “Now that they’ve lost their homes, they don’t have anywhere to go, and they don’t have disaster assistance to help them.” 

Grizzly Flats is located in El Dorado County, where many houses are secondary residences. Because of that, the town was unable to obtain individual Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance.

Legal Services of Northern California offers free legal support to survivors of natural disasters in northern California. 

“A lot of the homes lost were not primary residences, which is what FEMA will cover,” said  Jennifer Anders-Gable, the organization’s managing attorney. “But that’s not the case for basically the whole town of Grizzly Flats.

“This community was lumped into this bigger fire, and they got lost.” 

The El Dorado Community Foundation has been providing funds through their Caldor Fire Fund to supplement the loss in aid from FEMA for El Dorado County residents. 

Except for the Caldor Fire Fund and many personal GoFundMe pages, the community is left without financial support through the rebuilding process. Very little reporting has highlighted the lack of FEMA funds, making community members feel unheard. 

One such member from the nearby community of Phillips who lost their home in the Caldor Fire feels that the media has misrepresented what was destroyed in the flames. 

The resident, who prefers to remain nameless, saw that news sources primarily reported that Forest Service cabins were burning down in Phillips, despite the fact that private residences were lost as well. This lack of coverage distorts the reality of what is lost in disasters like the Caldor Fire, and reflects the stark difference between the coverage of rural and wealthy communities. 

In November 2018, two fires started in opposite ends of California: the Woolsley Fire in Los Angeles and Ventura counties and the Camp Fire in Butte County. The Camp Fire, which swept through Paradise, is still the deadliest fire on record in the state, killing 85 people, but initial national reporting focused on Los Angeles. 

Anders-Gable said the Woolsley Fire got a lot of attention because of the celebrities evacuating and Malibu mansions threatened. 

“I remember sitting in the old Sears building in Chico talking to Camp Fire survivors every day, weeks, knowing that these very low-income people are now worse off than ever before,” she said. “Yet we were just focusing on the celebrities in LA.” 

While the Camp Fire eventually got nationwide coverage, very few outlets have continued to report in the aftermath of the disaster, even though new developments in the story continue to occur. 

For example, the distribution of the Pacific Gas & Electric settlements for survivors has taken over three years. And according to Anders-Gable, the Camp Fire survivors who were receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) no longer qualify for SSI benefits now that they’ve received the PG&E settlements. This is despite the fact that the settlements bring them only slightly over the SSI eligibility income line. 

Wildfire reporting often fails to provide info about navigating existing resources 

California also saw its second-largest wildfire this summer — the Dixie Fire, which also devastated rural northern California.

Greenville, located in Plumas County, is another town of just over 1,000 people that saw the loss of almost 75% of its structures. 

But unlike the Caldor Fire, survivors of the Dixie Fire do qualify for individual FEMA assistance. However, this has created another issue that the media has not helped with: disseminating information about both FEMA funds and the process to get them. 

To qualify for FEMA aid, you need to be located in a presidentially declared disaster area, with at least one member of your household a U.S. citizen or valid visa holder. You also must be able to prove you suffered financial loss as a result of the disaster. 

If eligible, you can apply for funds online or get immediate in-person assistance at a nearby FEMA Disaster Recovery Center. 

Relief centers like this are essential in helping people apply for aid, but are often hard to find in rural areas where there are no central meeting locations to set up a center, or if there are any, are destroyed. 

That’s what Legal Services of Northern California encountered this summer. In Greenville, the public library burned down, so there wasn’t a good place to set up a relief center for survivors, Anders-Gable said. 

She added that many people who lost their homes quickly left the area, which made helping survivors through the FEMA application process much more difficult than it would be in an urban setting, where disaster recovery centers can be set up for months at a time. 

Many rural areas also have limited Internet and cell service, making it difficult for legal aid organizations to communicate with people digitally, said Tiela Chalmers. 

Chalmers is the chair of Disaster Legal Assistance Collaborative, a group of legal aid organizations, law firms, and nonprofits that provide free legal services to disaster survivors in California. She said that struggling with digital communications has been a central challenge of working with rural communities.

“One of the things we’ve been talking about is if there is a way that we can work with social service agencies to try to bring the Internet in somehow,” said Chalmers. 

Traditional media could also play an important role by broadcasting public service announcements about FEMA eligibility in these rural areas. But because the Federal Communications Commission has relaxed the requirement for TV and radio to air public service announcements, Chalmers said, the information is rarely disseminated through these forms. 

“It would be great if we could corral more radio and print media and TV, but those folks are really hard to reach and very reluctant to share,” she said. 

That means that survivors from rural communities might be more likely to miss the deadline to apply for funds.

In addition to supporting people through the FEMA process, legal aid groups can provide assistance to people for whom FEMA benefits aren’t a reliable way to rebuild after fire —namely, undocumented farmworkers. 

To register for FEMA, you must provide a Social Security number. If you don’t have a Social Security number—as is the case for many undocumented farmworkers—you don’t qualify, even if your home burned down. Without any safety net, the loss can be felt years into the future. 

“People already on the edge quickly go right into poverty, right into the very worst scenario,” said Chalmers. She worked with farmworkers who lost their homes and were ineligible for benefits during the August 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fires in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. 

 But a lack of widespread bilingual reporting, which could mention available services, makes it difficult to reach farmworkers. 

This process of rebuilding can take years, if it happens at all. Because news media rarely covers these stories, especially stories from low-income and communities of color in rural areas, the issues faced are not brought into the public eye for people to address. 

“Until you’re affected by a disaster, you don’t think about it and you assume that the Red Cross or FEMA or these big players come in and take care of people,” said Anders-Gable. “And the reality is, it’s a patchwork of a bunch of things with holes. Unless it’s patched up just right, it’s not a clean process for people, particularly lower-income people, to recover from disasters.”

Knowing information about settlements, FEMA benefits, or legal services can save someone’s life, yet very little of this information is disseminated to those who would most benefit from it. 

Instead, reporting focuses on the death, the destruction, the sensational news that sells – but it doesn’t have to. 

Wildfire reporting has many layers. The top layers, where the clickbait stories sit – the Malibu mansion and Lake Tahoe ski resort stories – can be peeled back. Diving deeper into the impacts of wildfire in communities where it’s not as easy to rebuild after losing your home can highlight the flaws of disaster recovery processes. It can amplify the difficulties of finding free legal services or understanding FEMA benefits, and it can put pressure on policymakers to do something about it. 

Journalists need to keep a close eye on these stories long after the flames go out because for so many, the flames never really do.

Claire Carlson (she/her) grew up in Reno, Nevada but now lives in Portland, Oregon, after making a few stops in California and Montana along the way. She is a rural reporting fellow for The Daily Yonder. When she’s not trying to string sentences together, you can find her reading, watching movies, or searching for wide-open spaces without cell service.

Editing by Janelle Salanga.

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