Media access to forest fires limited

May 20, 2015

By: The Prince George Citizen

Forest fires as news stories have always been popular. That has never changed. What has changed, however, is how the news media cover them.

Not so long ago, the B.C. Forest Service welcomed reporters and photographers out to the front lines, to get up close to the fire and the forest firefighters working hard to put out the flames.

These days, that’s considered unsafe, both for the journalists and for the firefighters. That’s perfectly understandable, of course, but it’s also a little sad.

It’s important for everyone to see the great work being done by the brave, committed firefighters, as well as the devastation caused by fire in the forests.

During my first newspaper job at the Penticton Herald, I was covering for the vacationing photographer when a huge forest fire broke out in the eastern mountains overlooking the city. A few days later, the news media were invited to the front line.

It involved an escorted hike from a forestry road into the steep, bone-dry mountains during the hottest part of a July afternoon in the south Okanagan.

We spent about 15 minutes at the line and I got my shots but when it was time to leave, we couldn’t. The fire had circled around behind us a short distance away and we were trapped.

The ground crew didn’t panic.

They kept working steadily away. Then we were told to crouch down, close our eyes, cover our mouths and noses with our shirts and count to 50.

A helicopter with a bucket dropped a huge load of water on the nearby flames. The air pressure pushed a brief wave of intense heat over us, followed by a blanket of thick smoke.

Once the smoke cleared and we stood up, we saw the firefighters were already attacking the line with new enthusiasm, trying to solidify the gains made by the water.

After about a half-hour and two more water drops, the path out was secure and we were escorted back to the waiting vehicles on the forest road.

When I was the editor of the now-defunct Shuswap Sun newspaper in Salmon Arm, our news team won national awards for our news and photo coverage of the massive forest fire there in 1998.

Summer student Dan McHardie spent a weekend embedded with the army members called out to help battle the blaze.

We were invited out to close-up ground and air tours of the fire.

Now the best photos and video available are plumes of smoke taken from a distant road. It’s unlikely Premier Christy Clark saw anything more than that during her flyover Friday.

 

By: The Prince George Citizen

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