We did it; we made it through the summer without a major wildfire plaguing our skies or our homes. After two years of smoke-filled weeks and wildfires threatening people’s lives, our region braced for the worst this summer. Major businesses and organizations—like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, vineyards and rafting companies—reworked their entire schedules around another smoky summer. Here at JPR, we also prepared for what we thought was to come. We put together “go bags” in case we had to hit the road suddenly to cover a fire, and we purchased bright yellow fire protection uniforms and helmets.
Fortunately, that gear stayed unopened in the hallway closet. But while we didn’t have to do much active wildfire coverage, we still remained on the beat. We used that time to explore how wildfires impact our region in a deeper way. We analyzed the scars they left behind on people’s lives and in the forests that surround our homes.
In 2018, the University of Washington and the Nature Conservancy produced a study that concluded that wildfires leave the most lasting impacts on people of color and people who are economically vulnerable. This year I decided to see how that study applies to our region by speaking to those communities. I focused on four groups: people of Latino or Hispanic descent, people with disabilities, people who are homeless, and people who are Native American.
I was lucky enough to have received a $1,000 grant from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s California Fellowship to embark on this project, which would include four in-depth radio features analyzing how wildfires impact public health in rural California.
First I had to find people who would tell me their stories, which turned out to be more challenging than I anticipated. Like many rural areas of Northern California, Shasta County has strained resources serving marginalized groups, so there weren’t many people who could connect me with Latinx people and other communities. The agencies that I did find were already busy enough helping people who needed it; they hardly had time to deal with a pesky reporter.
There was also a trust factor. Here I was, a reporter from Oregon, dropping into their lives so they could tell me their deeply personal stories from a traumatic event. How would they know that I won’t exploit their sorrow for web clicks? And if they’ve immigrated from another country, how would they know that my reporting wouldn’t expose and endanger them?
I had to meet people face-to-face to develop that trust. I made trips to Redding and spent several days in back-to-back interviews. Those interviews led to more interviews. I discovered a whole network of interconnected people in separate communities. When the Carr Fire hit the city last year, they texted their friends and family. They kept each other apprised of the evacuations and shelter locations. They welcomed each other into their homes. They helped each other get food, clothing and transportation.
When I was in Redding the day after the Carr Fire hit, it seemed like these things were easily accessible to everyone. There seemed to be free food and clothing everywhere, but really, it was all at the emergency shelters, and not everyone had access to those. Latinx families were wary of shelters for several reasons: there wasn’t any signage in Spanish to make them feel welcome, most of the staff and volunteers were white, and there were government logos everywhere. People with disabilities struggled to find transportation to these shelters, and when they got there, sleeping on a cot in a gym posed another challenge. And people who are homeless are barred from emergency shelters altogether due to federal laws.
I came away from this project with hours of tape and four hefty features. I concluded the series by focusing on a group that incorporates culture into fire management: the Yurok Tribe in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. The Yurok people reach far into their past and tap into ancestral forest burning—what the U.S. Forest Service now calls “prescribed burning.”
Centuries of living on their land taught Native Americans how to use fire as a tool for thinning forests of dead and dying vegetation. Native Americans long learned how to do cultural burns safely and at what time of year to do them. These burns in turn killed pests that plagued their crops, provided materials they used in regalia and basket weaving, and created an activity that connected tribal Elders and youth.
In recent years, modern Western forest management has embraced the idea of using fire as a forest-thinning tool. Perhaps in time it will also learn how to weave in the vast array of personal histories, cultural outlooks, and complex needs that represent the diverse communities within our region.
To read and listen to JPR’s four-part series “Oppressed By Wildfire,” visit ijpr.org/topic/oppressed-wildfire
April Ehrlich is a reporter at Jefferson Public Radio. She recently completed a fellowship with the USC Annenberg School of Journalism’s 2019 California Fellowship, which helped fund the “Oppressed By Wildfire” series exploring how wildfires impact marginalized groups. Her reporting has also covered public health, environment, investigations, and other issues around poverty.