How to Cover a Western Wildfire

While Western forests burn through late summer, it occurred to me as a former Senior National Wildfire Correspondent that it might be helpful to offer fellow television reporters advice and instruction on how to cover wildland fire.

One of the most important things is how you dress. The men must wear smoked yellow Nomex shirts and stop shaving the moment they are sent to the fire. They must not shave their faces or wash their Nomex until they are done covering the fire, even if they sleep at home every night. Nomex, like hockey pads, should never be washed during the life of the man or the equipment.

Women must keep their Nomex a spotless bright yellow. All hair and makeup must be perfect.

When you write your story, never call a fire a fire. It is a "blaze" or "inferno." Fire never just burns, it "rages." The simple word "fire" should be reserved for shouting in a crowded theater. A blaze is always "massive," and "uncontrolled" is a given. Save the word "firestorm" for the destruction of 50 or more houses. (See Homes, multi-million dollar.)

It is acceptable to use the word "firefighters" when referring to them in ones and twos, but in large numbers they should be referred to as "resources," as should bulldozers, aircraft and fire trucks. Therefore, when interviewing a fire commander you ask, "Do you have enough resources?" He will tell you he does not. If you find yourself overusing "resources" then substitute "assets."

Never refer to anything that grows in the path of fire as grass, a bush or a tree. It is known as "fuel." Dense growth is to be referred to as "fuel beds." It is acceptable to refer to foliage as "brush," but all brush is "tinder dry." (See "Deficit, Federal")

The massive inferno never burns natural terrain or unoccupied wilderness. Wildfire does not burn trailer homes or mere houses. It burns primarily "multi-million dollar homes." The blaze never burns a barn, a tool shack or a secluded meth lab. It "incinerates outbuildings." Don't cover a wildfire that burns only trees, unless someone in a position of authority describes them as a "precious natural resource."

In general, when wildfire is not burning multi-million dollar homes it burns only "structures." When fire comes close to houses or barns, it is a "structure threat." Fire trucks parked in a suburban loop are performing "structure protection," but there's nothing to worry about because they have plenty of resources in the area.

Flames do not have height, they have "length" even when they shoot 100 feet straight in the air. So you might be told by a fire commander that, "We're seeing flame lengths of 150 feet or more."

To avoid confusion, compare flames to apartment buildings.

The weather during fire season is always "bone dry" with flames "whipped by seasonal winds." This continues until weary firefighters get a much-needed break from the weather.

Just a few more pointers and you've got it. The word "weary" precedes "firefighters" in all references just as president comes before Obama and federal before deficit.

The ground is never just "burned," it is blackened, charred or scorched. All wildfires occur in difficult terrain even when the ground is flat.

When describing dry weather, break a branch off a bush and snap it in two, or grab a handful of brown grass and crumble it in your hand while saying, "the fuel here is tinder dry and firefighters see no relief."

Your first picture should be flames. Your last picture should be flames. Put flames in the middle of your story. When you do your standup, have flames behind you. If you don't have enough flame, you shouldn't be covering that fire.

Tomorrow, we'll talk about how to profile a weary firefighter on the line for the morning news.

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