Hot Spots

The media play catch-up on the state's largest-ever blaze.

You don't have to be a soothsayer to realize that wildfires will be the biggest story in Colorado for months to come. Remember the so-called Summer of Violence? With apologies to Tennessee Williams, this will be the Summer of Smoke.

The tale has been building since earlier this year, when it became obvious that the precipitation shortfall of winter and spring was a debt that would have to be settled eventually. But even the Coal Seam fire near Glenwood Springs, which has scorched dozens of structures to date and closed a huge stretch of Interstate 70 for a full 24 hours, was merely a preamble to the Hayman fire, an inferno of such size and sweep that scribes covering it quickly found out that their standard reportorial vocabularies were woefully inadequate.

Still, representatives of the print and electronic presses were slow out of the blocks when it came to documenting this conflagration's early stages. The manner in which they got up to speed (or didn't) during the fire's first three days of life reveals plenty about their respective news organizations and provides clues as to where listeners, readers and viewers should turn the next time sparks fly.

Burning down the house: the Hayman fire as seen on Denver TV.
Burning down the house: the Hayman fire as seen on Denver TV.

And there will be a next time.

Day one: Investigators with the U.S. Forest Service believe that at approximately 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 8, near Lake George in Park County, a campfire started by an unfathomably foolish person or persons unknown began to grow, and it was out of control before nightfall. But at first, this fire seemed like little more than a sideshow compared to Coal Seam, a disaster that was absolutely overflowing with dramatic possibilities. After all, the Glenwood-area fire had burned underground for many decades before surfacing in an area near Storm King mountain, where fourteen firefighters had perished in 1994; as a result, crews battling the current calamity were literally walking the path that had led their predecessors to doom. With material like this, it's no wonder that Hayman was barely noted in the evening's television newscasts and turned up parenthetically in just one article of prominence, an Associated Press roundup credited to writer Sarah Cooke.

Day two: On Sunday, June 9, Hayman remained mighty low on the media's agenda. The Rocky Mountain News no longer has a Sunday paper (thanks, JOA), so it couldn't get anything into black and white -- but a search reveals nothing on its Web site from that day, either. The Denver Post spilled only a tad more ink, noting it under the heading "Other Fires" in a box accompanying its sprawling Coal Seam spread. Denver's major network TV stations -- channels 4, 7 and 9 -- also paid little mind to Hayman during a.m. updates and newscasts. And virtually all area radio stations were silent on the subject, owing to the fact that most of them are bereft of live personalities on the weekends: Because the majority of Saturday and Sunday programming at Denver's top-shelf signals is assembled in advance, the only folks present are board operators who twist knobs rather than communicate directly with the public.

At first, the dearth of data didn't matter much to Denverites, who were blissfully unaware of Hayman's insatiable appetite. But by mid-morning, winds had pushed dense, ash-laden smoke clouds over the metro area -- and when those driving through the muck searched the dial for information, they discovered nothing that would enlighten them.

On the surface, the wildfires would have seemed perfect fodder for Colorado Public Radio, whose ballyhooed news-and-information network practically blankets the state. CPR, though, doesn't have a staff that's devoted to breaking news, and it will do anything to avoid interrupting its meticulously designed, entirely pre-recorded schedule; there could be an actual nuclear winter outside and its stations would still be broadcasting the canned whimsy of Garrison Keillor. That leaves Clear Channel, whose flagship, KOA, prides itself on being the place Coloradans turn to hear the latest. Yet Clear Channel personnel were apparently asleep at the switch; for much of Sunday, locals could have learned more by sticking their heads out the closest window and sucking down a couple chestfuls of soot than by tuning in KOA or its sister station, KHOW. According to one listener, the smoke finally came up in conversation at around 3:45 p.m., when KOA's Reggie McDaniel joked about the lousy air-conditioning system in the studio. Slightly more useful stuff was included in the subsequent 4 p.m. newscast, but it was undermined to a significant degree by a silly introduction: the hook from "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

Likewise, TV operations didn't exactly zoom an explanation of the gritty cloud bank onto screens, choosing not to run crawls until noonish, when Denver was already seriously shrouded. On Channel 7, Bertha Lynn delivered a quick Hayman primer just past 4 p.m., after the conclusion of a golf tournament; fellow anchor Mike Landess had done at least one previously. But instead of continuing in this vein, the station broadcast a movie-review program co-starring Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper. Channels 4 and 9 made similar moves, sticking with a Regis Philbin-hosted infomercial and a syndicated basketball show, respectively, before going live to the fire at 4:30 p.m. At the moment they did so, Channel 7, whose afternoon newscast began at 5 p.m., was sharing a film clip from Undercover Brother of siren Denise Richards fighting in a shower -- hot stuff of a less vital sort.

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