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.
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.
Granted, Denver's five English-language television-news providers, including channels 2 and 31, eventually got their acts together, filling afternoon and/or late-evening newscasts with vivid pictures that demonstrate why fires are such naturals for TV. But the dailies failed to take full advantage of the opportunity their Web sites give them to keep up with developing events on a minute-by-minute basis. The News's Web site left much to be desired, and the Post contented itself with borrowing the package that had surfaced on Channel 9's site, www.9news.com. Embarrassing? Mmmm-hmmm.
Day three: In their Monday, June 10, editions, the dailies devoted page after page to Hayman, and appropriately so. The Post's greater resources give it a boost in such situations, and the paper made the most of them -- running over thirty fire-related pieces. The News fared nearly as well with fewer bodies, spotlighting numerous photographs that were breathtaking and evocative. Clear Channel came into play, too, with KOA concentrating on Hayman and KHOW host Peter Boyles asking why fireworks hadn't been banned and suggesting that access to forests be cut off until the fire danger passes. Governor Bill Owens may have been listening: The various preventive measures he announced later in the day weren't much different from the ones Boyles had touted.
By that point, panic was racing through sizable sections of the community, thanks to "Residents Flee Blaze," an uncredited Associated Press article that came over the wire at 1:45 p.m. The lead by the anonymous author -- "The raging Hayman wildfire prompted authorities to order the evacuation of up to 40,000 people today from their homes along the southwestern edge of the Denver metropolitan area" -- was certainly a grabber, but it was also horrendously misleading. Whereas officials had indeed warned residents in assorted neighborhoods, including those in the vicinity of Roxborough State Park, that they might have to hightail it, nowhere near that number had been ordered out, nor would they be for the remainder of that day and beyond.
The AP's failure to make this plain created unnecessary fear among people who read the report on gadfly Matt Drudge's Internet destination, www.drudgereport.com, and several local online addresses -- notably sites controlled by the News, the Post and Channel 2. Other overstatements by the national media followed, including a CBS radio report that said "flames are licking at Denver's doorstep." Andrew Hudson, spokesman for Mayor Wellington Webb, was among those inundated by calls from folks wondering if Denver citizens were lined up at the city limits, garden hoses at the ready.
Fortunately, the Web sites affiliated with Channel 7 -- www.thedenverchannel.com -- and Channel 9 were filled with useful and accurate items and graphics related to Hayman; they admirably filled the gaps left by the AP account. Channel 4's site, www.kcncnews4.com, had one decent article at midafternoon, but its principal extra was a dopey survey: Responses to the query "Were you bothered by the smoke and ash in Denver Sunday?" ranged from "A lot -- my lungs and eyes were upset" to "I wasn't in Denver on Sunday." Even so, this far outstripped the content on Channel 31's site, www.fox31.com: Its home page featured a "digital doppler" map and a glamour shot of Ron Zappolo and his A-list cohorts. Meanwhile, clicking on the "news" button gave surfers the golden opportunity to pan the studio. Fire? What fire?
The 9 p.m. newscast on Channel 31 answered that question -- but the station's coverage wasn't nearly as impressive as its recent ratings performances. Zappolo and co-anchor Libby Weaver were absent, leaving matters in the hands of substitutes Phil Keating and Whei Wong, neither of whom mustered enough gravitas given the main events of the night. In addition, the station's shaky-cam chopper footage came across as weak, and its use of lame filler like a lengthy "Fame or Shame" test of a new paint roller was inexcusable. Channel 2's coverage at 9 p.m. wasn't as assured from a show-business angle as was Channel 31's, but at least the station kept the focus on news, not home decoration.
The contest between Denver's other three TV stations was tighter, with all three extending their afternoon broadcasts because of the fire and doing a more than creditable job wrapping things up at 10 p.m. But Channel 7, which trails the pack from a popularity perspective, made the canniest decisions. Landess, working his first defining story since his return to Denver, helmed the 5 p.m. newscast from the passenger seat of the station's helicopter as the craft flew over the devastation. (In contrast, Channel 9's Adele Arakawa was placed in a nondescript setting in suburban Douglas County that was entirely flame-free.) That evening, Channel 7 brought out the helicopter again -- channels 4 and 9 relied on videotape -- and cashed in with striking images that captured the breadth of the beast more completely than any previous shots.
Choices like these will crop up over and over again as the fire season proceeds, and those who make them may not know for days, or even weeks, if the call was right. On the afternoon of June 10, for instance, all hell seemed to be breaking loose, but KOA elected not to preempt coverage of a baseball game in which the Colorado Rockies, facing off against the Boston Red Sox, played as if possessed by the lackadaisical ghost of Buddy Bell.
Hayman-oriented reporting continued on KHOW, and before the game, KOA's Dave Logan made it clear that the baseball broadcast would be interrupted if events warranted, which they didn't. In this case, the station wasn't hurt by the gamble -- but that's no guarantee that it won't get burned in the future.
Turkey day: The letter published in this week's edition by Ray Overfield (see page 9), who tells of a Thanksgiving-morning encounter at a local watering hole with former Denver Post columnist Chuck Green, made us curious to learn if Green had shared this particular holiday experience with readers. As it turns out, "Thanks Resound Farther in 2001," his piece from November 23 (the day after Thanksgiving), spoke of an encounter that sounds very much like the one Overfield describes. Green wrote that Thanksgiving began with "a glorious pastel orange sunrise streaking the blue Colorado sky with broad brush strokes that provided an inspirational glow over the eastern horizon," after which he shared "a warm fellowship with some special friends, who shall remain anonymous because that's the pathway they have chosen."
Kinda makes you thirsty just reading about it...
Even better, though, was Green's November 25 followup, "A Second Serving of Turkey Travails," which beat an entire column out of a paragraph that had appeared two days earlier. Green asserted that a couple of sentences on preparing a turkey ("...trying to keep the stuffing from oozing out as we pushed the slippery bird around the table, trying to sew up its unattractive orifices...") had netted a greater response than any similar passage "in all of the 33 years that I've written for the Post." He then spent another 500 words expanding upon this anecdote, with most of his witticisms focusing upon the turkey's "gaping cavity."
It pains me to think we may never read a column this bizarre again. Please come back, Chuck! All is forgiven!
Also unappreciated in some quarters was outgoing Post editor Glenn Guzzo. Last week, a staffer went around the newsroom asking fellow employees to sign a baseball bat to be given him as a goodbye gift; Guzzo is a fanatic for the great American pastime, and once ran his own rotisserie-type sports game called "Strat-O-Matic" on the Internet. But a number of Post types turned down the request for farewell signatures, and two others asked if they could use the bat to smack Guzzo's ass on his way out the door.
Can't you kids play nicer than that?
As for Greg Moore, the former Boston Globe managing editor who's replacing Guzzo, he may be getting ready for his own brand of batting practice. His first day in his new role was June 10 -- during a busy news cycle if there ever was one -- and he commemorated the occasion with a staff meeting that left some of his new charges buzzing with excitement and others edgy and concerned. His main message was that he wasn't going to be like those editors who come into a new situation amid reassurances that they'll leave things pretty much as they are. No, he said, he plans to make changes and to make them soon.
Guess that's his way of holding his reporters' feet to the fire.
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