Who knew there was a beat called “fire coverage,” or it was a job they would learn to love?
Certainly not Lizzie Johnson, who was covering city hall for The San Francisco Chronicle, and not yet sure where she fit in the newsroom. Then one day back in 2015 the metro editor, who was short-staffed, dispatched her to write about the Butte Fire two hours east of the city. She had no clue how wildfire coverage worked.
“Maybe that was foreshadowing?” Johnson wonders in retrospect. Because ever since California’s Wine Country Wildfires ignited two years later, in the summer of 2017, she has been a full-time fire reporter. Or, as she puts it in her bio, “a recovering political reporter.”
This summer Johnson was back in the smoke covering the massive Carr Fire around Redding, some 220 miles north of San Francisco. Started in late July by a spark thrown from a flat tire, the fire scorched 230,000 acres, destroyed 1,079 homes and 22 commercial buildings, and caused the death of three firefighters before it was declared contained early this month. One of Johnson’s stories focused on 76-year-old Ed Bledsoe, who left home for a 15-minute errand. The Carr fire was miles away from his home. Until it wasn’t. It turned and raced. By the time Bledsoe did the same thing, his wife and two great-grandchildren were dead. In Johnson’s searing interview with him (pay attention to the details she uses to reveal his emotions), he is still running errands on their behalf and waiting for them to return.
But just days before the Carr fire erupted to claim so much, Johnson returned to wine country, and a man called Priest Morgan. He had been mentioned in stories from the previous summer, declared a heroic Samaritan for his actions in the Tubbs Fire that destroyed whole neighborhoods in and around Santa Rosa. Morgan was racing away from the fire when he reversed course and returned to Journey’s End, the senior citizen mobile home park where he lived. He evacuated several neighbors and saved – sort of – some of their homes.
“I believe these stories are really, really important. That keeps me going.”
The “sort of” sits at the heart of “Regret haunts Wine Country fire hero: ‘I’ve never cried this much,’” published in the Chronicle July 13, 2018. In revisiting Morgan, Johnson found a story that revealed how the consequences of good intentions and actions can sometimes play out in heartbreaking ways. Rather than living with the comfort that he did the right thing, Morgan has been torn with guilt. Sometimes he wishes he had died in the fire with his neighbors. Sometimes he rails, in writing, to insurance companies and the government. Almost always, he wishes he hadn’t turned around to help, but had just kept driving.
Johnson’s story is the opposite of happily-ever-after. But it is real and compelling – something she seeks in her stories, wherever it leads.
“After a big wildfire, the first phase of coverage involves putting a human face on the tragedy,” she told me when I reached out to talk about her work, and especially about the haunted Samaritan profile. As she talks to people sifting through the rubble of their homes or survivors camped in evacuation shelters, she scouts for characters who illustrate life’s big themes: love, loss, change. These become the seeds for stories that come later.
The second phase is to make something whole out of the fragments, she says: “That means helping the Chronicle’s readers understand a wildfire’s ripple effect… as well as make sense of a tragedy that seems senseless.” As part of that mission, she uses what she learned covering government: “I know how to request the records and data I need for stories on firefighter deaths or fire causes. I know to keep an eye on what’s happening in Sacramento. Those things give a story teeth. And I know I have to have a really tough skin.”
But the stories that “stick with me,” she says, are the human stories. She is keenly aware that she is not a trained therapist. She drops into a disaster zone and listens. She is humbled by hearing what fire victims have gone through and the grace with which they receive her. “Here they are, going through one of the worst days of their lives, and they take the time to talk to a nosy reporter about what they’re feeling and thinking,” she says. “Fire victims want someone to talk to, and I show up at the right moment. I’m a vessel for their tragic stories.”
She doesn’t deny that it takes a toll. So while she tries not to flinch away at the pain of the story in front of her, she also tries to take care of herself. A self-described “eternal optimist,” she stays grounded by checking in with family and friends; she runs daily, eats good food, gets enough sleep, and asks for time off when she needs it. And she lets herself cry on the long drives from the fires back to San Francisco.
Ultimately, she says: “I believe these stories are really, really important. That keeps me going.”
The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Johnson’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen.
By Lizzie Johnson
San Francisco Chronicle, July 13, 2018
God woke you up, you’re sure of it. Second person?! An unexpected gambit in newspaper writing. Were you aiming to do that, rouse your readers, who may have been starting to become numb to fire storm stories? Has the Chronicle ever run an article that starts in second person before? I wanted our readers to viscerally feel what it was like to be in Journey’s End as the Tubbs Fire devoured it, to put themselves in Priest’s shoes. There rest of the story wouldn’t have the same power if they didn’t deeply understand his decision to save the park. Starting in second person was definitely a gambit. My editor, Demian Bulwa, and I had discussed ways to bring more creativity into my writing. He offhandedly mentioned using second person — though he still claims he doesn’t remember saying that! — and I ran with it. My lede nearly didn’t make it to print. He was hesitant about it. It’s not a style The Chronicle has often used, though our wine writer did use a similar device last year. I’m hoping we can try it out more often.
He kicked you in the head as smoke filled the room. “Look out the back window,” came the voice. So you did.
What you saw at 3 a.m. at the Journey’s End mobile home park in Santa Rosa was orange light where it shouldn’t have been. Row after row of tightly packed units were ablaze along Highway 101. Although you establish a time of day and a place, at the outset you’re not mentioning month or year or name of this fire (the Tubbs Fire). Is that because you want readers to stay under the spell of the story and wonder what’s going to happen next instead of remembering other coverage of that fire? At the time, Priest didn’t know that the wildfire had a name, or that it was blitzing across Sonoma County. All he knew was that he needed to put out the fire as well as he could. I wanted that sense of urgency to stay intact. There was power to that, and I knew those details could come later.
You didn’t want to die, not like this, so you got in your pickup and drove away. Then you turned around.
People were screaming and embers filled the sky. You had firefighting training and knew you could help. Someone handed you a fire hose, and you stayed for hours, until 8:30 in the morning, until the roaring of the flames quieted.
One row of homes survived the night, thanks to you. In the days ahead, you’d be hailed as a savior in the community and in the news, given a spontaneous ovation at the post office.
But if you could relive that night in October, you’d get back in the truck and keep driving.
You’d let it all burn.In this graph you establish a geographical turn around (he escapes, but he goes back to the fire) and a philosophical turn around (he wishes he had never made that geographic turn around). In essence, this makes a bracket around an interval of time between the fire breaking out in October 2017 until now. How did you discover a way to frame a story that’s ostensibly about a particular bureaucracy (boring, but important) as a narrative about one man’s trenchant regrets (emotional, but universal)? At first, I struggled to write this story. I had interviewed Priest for another story I was writing about Journey’s End and how the residents were still in limbo. But Priest didn’t seem to fit into that narrative. He didn’t feel like a supporting character to me. Eventually, I realized I could use his emotional journey to highlight what was happening at the mobile home park in an indirect way. By this point, I had already written a handful of stories about the plight of those senior residents, and nothing was changing, so I decided to try something completely different. The story is about Priest. But it’s also not about him at all. It’s about the city and the county’s failure to help these people. That’s how those two subjects joined and this story was born.
Priest Morgan’s real name is Robert, but the hero of Journey’s End hasn’t gone by that in five decades, not since he was 11 years old and started play-acting the role of local psychiatrist in his East Los Angeles subdivision. “East LOS” is tattooed on his right forearm. These names! Priest Morgan. Journey’s End. It all sounds so Steinbeck-ian. Did any novelists/mystery writers influence the way you reported this story? No, not really. Don’t pass judgement, but I haven’t read Steinbeck since high school, and his novels are fairly time-warped in my memory. I had a massive word document with Priest’s story on my desktop, but I hadn’t touched it for a month. I was still struggling to decide what to do with it. I do my best writing in cycling classes (I know, it’s weird), and the story came to me fully formed one afternoon earlier this summer. I left the class early and wrote the story lede and structure on an app on my phone. I’m very detailed in my reporting, and I was able to fill in the gaps with greater specificity and detail later.
His father left before he was born, and Priest was raised by a single mother in the crime-ridden neighborhood. She later remarried, and his sister was born when he was 7. He lost 10 cousins to gang violence, he said, and was knifed twice and shot once in the hip.
“It was crazy back then,” Morgan said. “You would walk to school and see shootouts and bodies in the gutter.”
Priest wasn’t interested in joining a gang. “God puts you places to help people,” his mom would tell him. So he tried to be in the right places A question about questions: This bit about God putting Priest Morgan in places…was this an oft-spoken guiding mission of his, or was it something that gradually came to the surface in the interview process? Also, what was the wackiest or most difficult question you posed to anyone on behalf of reporting this? And in the end, was it your questions or your fly-on-the-wall observations that yielded the most helpful information? Silence is my favorite interview tool. I tend to ask open-ended questions, then sit back and let my subject talk. People are uncomfortable with silence, so they’ll keep talking to fill it, and that’s where I find the best details. My wackiest questions involve hammering down details: What did you eat? How did it smell? What were you wearing? Why that tattoo? How many tattoos? There’s beauty to specificity. And to your first question: I try to retain as much of my story subject’s character as possible. If they have certain speaking mannerisms or repeat specific phrases, I’ll underline them in my notebook and make sure they are written into the story. Priest often repeated that idea you mentioned — of God putting him in the right places — so it felt important to include. It encompasses everything he’s done in his life and his decision to save a row of mobile homes in Journey’s End.
“The story is about Priest. But it’s also not about him at all. It’s about the city and the county’s failure to help these people.”
He could get anyone to talk to him, and he liked untangling problems. The neighbors called him “Pastor” and eventually “Priest.” If you call out for him on the street now — “Robert!” — he won’t turn around. That early nickname became his identity.
It’s how the low-income seniors at Journey’s End saw Morgan, too. There were 161 trailers in the 13.5-acre park, where Morgan, 61, was one of the more able-bodied.
He caulked one woman’s roof. He changed a man’s bandages after surgery. He hoisted couches and deciphered legal paperwork. I love how lean and alive these lines are. Instead of “He helped his neighbors,” you offer a high level of specificity. Commenter “Bradnewsham” noted, “This may be one of the best, one of the cleanest, most-touching newspaper stories I’ve ever read. My usual test is can I read it from start to finish without my mind wandering for even an instant? And that was true here. It was so personal, so immediate.” How do you tell such an emotionally rich, detailed story on deadline? Readers shouldn’t have to work at a story. The best way to streamline a story is to cut as much as you can — every “that,” “just,” “Then,” “and,” dependent clause and meaningless detail. I tend to overwrite, so I’ll go in afterwards and edit myself before I push it to my editor. It helps to have really good details. They make a story richer because the subject becomes more human, and thus, more relatable. Did you have a word limit for this story? I didn’t. My editor, Damien Bulwa, is amazing. He will always give me more space as long as the story is worth it. That’s always his disclaimer – make the words worth it.
“Come on,” Morgan would say. “I’ll take care of you. I can do it for free or cheaper. Just call me.”
He joked about buying a walker to blend into the community. The seniors gave him — as his childhood neighbors once did — a sense of purpose. Morgan was there for them when others weren’t. They baked him chocolate chip cookies and always remembered his birthday.
When the Tubbs Fire came rolling down from the forested hills east of Santa Rosa on the night of Oct. 8, Morgan knew his purpose. Firefighters were focused on evacuating and saving the Kaiser hospital next door, so they cut a hole in the chain-link fence and passed Morgan a thick hose. It is so rare for journalists to circle back, in effective ways, after the news headlines go away. How did you and the editors decide it was worth revisiting the Tubbs Fire and the plight of the Journey’s End residents by way of Priest Morgan? In late October, right after the Wine Country Wildfires had calmed, my editor called me to say he was putting me on long-term coverage for the next year writing about the North Bay’s recovery efforts. It was a massive blaze, unlike anything the state had ever seen, and The Chronicle believed it was a story worth following. Priest’s story fit into that. Also, last summer, I had moved to the general assignment desk from San Francisco City Hall, and I hadn’t found an area of coverage that inspired me yet. I felt lost in metro and was struggling to understand how I fit into the grid-work of existing beat coverage. I don’t know what Demian’s thought process was, but fire coverage was the perfect fit. Eventually, people started calling me “the fire girl.” I don’t fit the narrative for what wildfire reporters typically look like. I’m very petite and very blonde. Officials always seemed surprised to see me on the front fire lines. Now I’ve been to every major wildfire across the state in the past year, and I’m the paper’s lead fire reporter. I love it.
As he fought the flames threatening units on Sahara Drive, he paused only to follow the sound of a barking dog and rescue the animal’s owner — a woman in a wheelchair in a nearby trailer. A captain and three other firefighters eventually joined to help.
Protecting a portion of Journey’s End may have saved additional lives.
“As my focus was on the Kaiser evacuation, part of that plan of success heavily relied on your … efforts to hold that last row of homes on Sahara Street,” Jason Jenkins, a battalion chief for the Santa Rosa Fire Department, wrote in an email to Morgan in February. “I am doubtful that Kaiser would have made it without Sahara Street.”
As morning dawned Oct. 9 — a blood-red sun rising behind soot and smoke — the line of mobile homes beyond Sahara Drive and bordering Kaiser was still standing.
It was a small miracle amid a night of horror. Or was it?
California had never seen the like of the Tubbs Fire, which killed 24 people and leveled 5,600 homes, businesses and other structures in Sonoma County.
The flames killed two residents of Journey’s End, incinerated 121 homes and melted the new gas and electric system. The 40 surviving units — the ones Morgan helped save — were contaminated by smoke and asbestos and red-tagged.
Ten months later, the residents of those units are stuck. Those who had insurance can’t collect a settlement because the units are standing, and they can’t go home because the land is condemned. A nonprofit housing organization plans to build a mix of affordable and market-rate condos on the wrecked lot.In a sense, this insurance debacle is the actual story, a story you covered in “Displaced seniors’ homes survived Wine Country fires but residents can’t move back.” But what makes this story indelible is the intimate narrative of how this debacle scorched the psyche of Priest Morgan. Do you have a gut sense of what will make readers care or do you use sounding boards/trial and error? I can sense a good story, and I’m always hunting for the stories that are strange or will help make sense of the tragedy of a wildfire. I get so excited when I find one that my finger tips start tingling. (Maybe I should work on breathing.) When I talked to Priest, I immediately knew there was a story within his narrative. At the time, I didn’t know what it was. But I could tell it would be powerful.
“Insurance companies don’t cover that,” said Ronit Rubinoff, executive director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County, a nonprofit group that helps low-income households. “Because the park was closed by government action, they said the condemnation applies, and we don’t have to cover it. But the reason the park closed was because a wildfire destroyed it first.”
A cluster of residents lives in the Sandman Hotel, just across Highway 101. Sometimes, they leave voice mails on Morgan’s phone. They talk about suicide. Most don’t blame Morgan, but they wish their homes had burned down.
Here is the agony of doing right and then seeing it turned upside down. Morgan is consumed with guilt.
“I don’t know a single fireman that has ever regretted saving someone’s house,” he said, crying. “I feel like I should have minded my own business. It’s been a thorn for me. The tears, that’s not me. I’m a pretty bad-ass dude. But I’ve seen and suffered and hurt and anguished over this.”
And so Morgan thinks back to that night, over and over. He is in the truck speeding away, and he doesn’t stop. He drives until the glow of Journey’s End is a smudge on the dark horizon.
On a recent morning, Morgan paced across the carpeted floor of his trailer at Lamplighter Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa. His salt-and-pepper hair was slicked with gel, and tattoos snaked under the sleeve of his T-shirt.
He has a new unit that he rents for $1,200 a month, a good bit more than the $905 he paid before the fire. Bird feathers and knickknacks fill the space. He has a home, but his community is gone.
Morgan is retired from his various former jobs and pursuits: a combat medic with the U.S. Army, a paramedic firefighter for the Diamond Springs Fire Department in El Dorado County, a physical therapist, a law school dropout and a drug counselor for Lake County. He once started a production company, and he managed rental properties. He’s divorced and lives alone.
He funnels his anger and guilt into helping the seniors from Journey’s End. It’s his atonement for saving their homes that night. It’s also just who he is.
“I should’ve died that morning,” Morgan said. “I shouldn’t have woken up. Nobody wakes up who is sleeping in that kind of smoke for that many hours. Mom tells me, ‘God puts you in places to help people.’ She’s always told me that. That’s what I’m here for.”
As he paces, he plans.
“If you set out to write a sad story, I think it’s easy to get burned out on the tragedy. But hidden in the gloom is incredible grit and potential.”
After the Tubbs Fire, he wrote what he calls the Martha Sue Sinnott Law. In the confusion of those early morning hours, Sinnott was left in her trailer, and she might have died if Morgan hadn’t heard the yapping of her dog and helped her evacuate. Two other disabled residents died in the park that night.
Sinnott’s law would implement a universal sign system for people with mobility issues, with emergency placards affixed near their front doors. Morgan has written to the state Department of Emergency Services, as well as Sen. Kamala Harris and others, seeking support.
The text of the proposal is littered with random capitalization, because some things are too important to lowercase. He sees his friends from Journey’s End suffering, and he has to do something.
“Come on, people, they’re hurting,” Morgan said. “Their friends burned to death. There’s all this crap going on. Quit dragging them through the past for nothing. They’re still no closer to moving on. Come on, really? I’ve never cried this much in my life.”
He’s running out of time. Maybe that’s why he can’t let go of what happened at Journey’s End.
Morgan was diagnosed with advanced liver disease this year. It feels like the flu but “multiplied by 10,” and the medicine sometimes muddles his head. He has hepatitis C, which became symptomatic in 2003. Some days, he can’t get up. He’s too fatigued from the dry heaving and the weight loss.
“The doctor said, ‘You have third-stage liver disease,’” Morgan said. “What the hell, what happened to stage one and two? Come on. I don’t care about dying — I’ve had a full life — though a little more of a heads-up would’ve been nice.”
He doesn’t talk about being sick because he doesn’t want to worry his old friends. But the news spread anyway to people like Inger Simonsen, 72, who lived a few doors down from Morgan before the fire and is now in the tiny community of Hemet in Riverside County.
Morgan used to trim branches from the tree in Simonsen’s front yard every spring. It’s still standing, as is her mobile home.
“I didn’t want to villainize the seniors who were leaving him angry messages. They were struggling to make sense of their new lives, and Priest was their scapegoat.”
“He did the right thing for all of the right reasons,” Simonsen said with a sigh. “I know people are angry at him, and I’m sorry about that, because he doesn’t deserve that kind of heartache. People are bitter because they’ve been floating in limbo. It’s hard to live with. I think it’s just going to take a while for them to come around.”
Morgan saved Lois Smith’s trailer on Sahara Drive, too. She moved to El Christo Mobile Home Park, about 10 miles away on the opposite side of Santa Rosa. She doesn’t begrudge him, though she admits life would be easier if her home had burned.
“It’s the way the insurance companies are,” she said. “They are terrible. At least he did his best in saving the people. That’s his nature. It’s just the type of person he is.”
Morgan finds little comfort in their words. He listens to every victim’s voice mail, agonizing over their plight and his own actions.How do you decide where to sketch vs. fine detail…for example, did you consider quoting voices from Morgan’s answering machine or describing some of the knickknacks in his new unit? In regards to the voicemails — I didn’t want to villainize the seniors who were leaving him angry messages. They were struggling to make sense of their new lives, and Priest was their scapegoat. It is an impossible situation. I empathized with them, and I thought it would be better to sketch the scene. As for details, they always need to carry meaning. It’s not effective to brush in details just for the sake of having them. I could have described Priest’s new unit in more depth, but it wasn’t as powerful as some of the other details I had.
What did God mean when he kicked Morgan awake? What was the right thing to do? Was there a right thing?Although throughout you are unobtrusively reporting this, these questions feel so personal; maybe they aren’t exclusively Morgan’s, but yours, too. Or are they eveyone’s? These are the questions Priest is struggling with. I put our readers in Priest’s head at the beginning of this story, and I wanted to put them back there at the end. One of the things that strikes me about this story is that “Regret haunts” combined with another of your features, “Ed Bledsoe couldn’t outrace the Carr Fire…” in which a man turns around but can’t make it back in time to save his family, makes an infernal pair of damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t scenarios. How do you keep from getting burned out on tragic narratives? I try to find the humanity within them. They can be really sad, yes. But if you add in enough context and detail, incredible loss can lend itself to incredible narratives about despair, perseverance, love and the times we live in. If you set out to write a sad story, I think it’s easy to get burned out on the tragedy. But hidden in the gloom is incredible grit and potential. I look at those kinds of stories and there’s so much else here. There’s beauty here, too.
“My main worry is one of them is going to die before they get their home back again,” Morgan said. “And that’s going to hurt. When you get that old, you don’t have a whole lot. Your home is your safe place, your castle. And they don’t have it.”