Lizzie Johnson's notes from Day 2 of covering the Camp Fire in northern California.

Lizzie Johnson's notes from Day 2 of covering the Camp Fire in northern California.

The Facebook post was conversational and almost light-hearted:

And on Day Two of Camp Fire coverage, I spilled water all over my notebook and laptop (tips?!). Seems fitting that the only legible line is this: “But I don’t live in Paradise anymore.”

The accompanying photo (above) of a waterlogged notebook and smeared ink was the kind of image that prompts a amused groan of recognition.

Together they stopped me in my tracks.

Lizzie Johnson, the “fire reporter” for the San Francisco Chronicle, was back in the fray of smoke and flames, as were dozens of journalists from around the country. The seasonal reality of wildfires has now become a year-round risk throughout the tinder-dry West. They are especially acute in California, where population numbers are large, the terrain is both seductive and untamable, and the Santa Ana and Diablo winds show little mercy. The notion that bullets don’t discriminate has found its way into news stories and activist arguments and personal testimonies and poems. So, too, this generation of wildfires, that behave in ways that leave even the veteran firefighters awed, confounded and scared.

The fires also provide fuel for essential news coverage and creative writing. Vivid description, harrowing action, dramatic arcs, heroes and victims, and a seminal archetype: Man vs nature.

In the heat of all of that, and under the high stress of deadline, it can be easy to over-indulge. Most of the coverage I’ve read from the current spate of California wildfires has avoided that trap. I’ve been impressed by the smart reports that take me into scenes and let me hear raw, human stories voices, all the while keeping me up-to-date on the essentials: numbers, costs, containment, and rescue efforts, even the trajectory of the winds. I’ve also been overwhelmed because the number and tenor of the stories reflect the overwhelming nature of the fires themselves. The drama is high.

Lizzie Johnson covering the Camp Fire in Paradise, California

Lizzie Johnson covering the Camp Fire in Paradise, California

Then comes the Facebook post by Lizzie Johnson. In September, we annotated “Regret haunts Wine Country fire hero,” a piece she wrote this past July profiling a Samaritan who remains tortured about the consequences of his actions a year earlier. A week after filing that piece, she was back in the hot ash, writing about the Carr Fire. This November should have given her a break, maybe plotting long-range coverage or hitting the SEND button on quick phoners done from her desk. She apparently managed a vacation; a Nov. 2 Facebook post includes photos from a rock-climbing trip to Joshua Tree Park:

California, you’re too beautiful. Climbing in the most magical place with the most magical people. Find your people and hold them real close.

Then the Camp Fire erupted, soon becoming the most deadly in California history. On Nov. 10, this ran on Page 1 of the Chronicle under Johnson’s byline: “This was Paradise: ‘How do you quantify everything being gone?

I may have skipped right past it but for her quick Facebook post and, even more, that ‘been-there done-that’ notebook disaster. I wanted to know what, if anything, she pulled out of that barely legible smear of words. This is what I found:

Johnson somehow resisted the obvious and dramatic path  in front of her and took a different tack. Rather than start with the anecdotal story of one desperate fire refugee, she introduces me, gently, to the town of Paradise before the news made it famous:

PARADISE, Butte County — A settler named this place in 1864, at the end of a hot and dusty day of travel. As oak land gave way to pine, he took a deep breath of the cool mountain air and said, “This is paradise.”

Or that’s what people say happened, anyway. Every little town has its stories, even Paradise, though it didn’t become a town until 1979 when it was incorporated. It was a quiet community, nestled on a wide ridge in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada — a little-known place recalled only for its proximity to bigger places. Sacramento: 90 miles, Chico: 12, Oroville: 25.

Until the Camp Fire leaped into this town of 26,000 people Thursday morning.

She then offered four paragraphs of tight but necessary journalism: A brief sweep of moments of normalcy before the fire, the sudden blaze, the context of scope and numbers. And then this:

By Saturday, 6,453 homes and 260 commercial buildings in and around Paradise were confirmed destroyed. The entire Town Council was suddenly homeless, and so was half of the police and fire force.

Now, everyone knows Paradise.

What’s the big deal? Consider the discipline of starting with history instead of in a moment of red-hot heat. Consider the tightness of the context. And then the intriguing juxtaposition of the overall numbers (6,453 homes and 260 commercial buildings) with a swoop down to the unlikely individual victims. Not the elderly resident of a mobile home, or the struggling young family left homeless, but the entire Town Council and half of the police and fire force. What better way to show that the fires truly don’t discriminate?

I am reluctant to interrupt reporters in the field, especially when they are filing under risk. But Johnson was gracious enough to answer a quick Facebook message. I asked if she went to Paradise with its history already in mind. Had she already decided she wanted to profile the place – and the loss of that place – rather than hang a narrative on immediate events. Her answer:

Yeah – I wrote that story because I felt like someone needed to write a requiem for a town named Paradise. There was so many stories about loss and destruction, but no one was actually writing about WHAT was lost and destroyed. It felt like a big piece was missing and coverage was one-dimensional without it.

I asked about those waterlogged notes:

The first day was pretty scary. My hands were shaking, and I dropped my water bottle on my notepad and laptop. I ended up having to write that story on my iPhone. Turns out the “C” and “V” keys are closer together than I thought. That was pretty annoying. But I’m happy with how it turned out, all things considered!

The lessons there:

  • She wrote a story by absorbing the entire story, not just padding transitions around her notes and quotes.
  • She didn’t fold when things went wrong in the field.
  • That quick, light Facebook post? She knew her problems, as a reporter, were nothing compared to those she was writing about.
  • Oh, and huge! She did the best she could at the time, and didn’t lament that her story might not be perfect.

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