Amid 'apocalyptic' Carr Fire, local newspaper informs Redding co - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Amid 'apocalyptic' Carr Fire, local newspaper informs Redding community

Posted: Updated: Jul 31, 2018 8:49 AM
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David Benda has been reporting for the Redding Record Searchlight in California for 28 years, covering so many fires he can reel off a number of them in an instant.

The massive Fountain Fire in 1992. The Jones Fire just 10 miles outside Redding in 1999. The Klamathon Fire near the California-Oregon border just a few weeks ago.

What he experienced last week, though, was different.

"Fires are nothing new, but this one was so scary,'' Benda said of the Carr Fire, which has burned nearly 100,000 acres and claimed six lives. "Thursday night is when it blew up, and I'll never forget it. It was bad. … We started hearing sirens all around work. You looked outside and there was this glow, huge smoke. I know it's a cliché, but it did look apocalyptic.''

For Benda and his co-workers at the Record Searchlight, that meant it was time to get busy. With a staff of 11, plus ongoing assistance from other outlets in the USA TODAY Network, the newspaper has been keeping readers informed of the unpredictable and quickly changing developments surrounding the blaze.

From updates on firefighters' efforts to subdue the fire to reports on looters, heartbreaking stories of people who lost their homes and even the tale of celebrity chef Guy Fieri's involvement in feeding evacuees, the Record Searchlight has been an invaluable source of information both online and in print.

Recognition for its work has come from readers and journalists alike, including a tweet from Los Angeles Times assistant managing editor Shelby Grad on Sunday that read: "The city burning all around them, the reporters and editor of the @BreakingNews_RS have produced incredible, brave, comprehensive journalism this week, even with the power out and mass evacuations … redding.com.''

All the while, the paper kept alive its streak of publishing on every scheduled date for nearly 80 years, against considerable odds.

More: Where's Redding? As fire draws national attention, online searches about the California city spike

Related: 'My babies are dead': Here are the victims of the deadly Redding, California, blaze

More than half the staff have been forced out of their homes by the blaze, prompting them to seek shelter for themselves and their families at friends' houses or in hotels. Some have slept in the newsroom, when they have slept at all. Two employees in the production department lost their homes.

When the fire jumped the Sacramento River on Thursday and became a real threat to the city of Redding and its population of 92,000, the Record Searchlight lost power around 9:30 p.m. Working under lanterns, its journalists used cellphone hot spots to regain online access and publish digital stories, but putting out the paper remained questionable.

Executive Editor Silas Lyons said the staff overcame several technological obstacles to print by using the presses of the Chico Enterprise Record, 70 miles south.

"It was incredibly important to us that, when the unthinkable was happening, our community could wake up to a newspaper,'' Lyons said.

Reader appreciation has come in many forms, among them social media messages, such as a tweet from Sally Ann Berk that said, "The #ReddingCA Record-Searchlight deserves a #Pulitzer for their heroic reporting. These are great American journalists. #carrfire2018 #California#wildfires.''

On Facebook, Bonnie Walker wrote, "Thank you for your frequent, informative reports. I had never heard of the Record Searchlight before, but I (a Southern Oregon resident) have been tuned into you guys since this event started. and am recommending you guys on FB to others."

To allow full access for all readers, the Record Searchlight also lifted its paywall and plans to keep all coverage "free and unmetered as long as the danger continues,'' Lyons said.

"This is the time when local news goes from being nice to absolutely vital. People are so dependent on the information flow and understand journalists are bringing it to them under difficult circumstances," he said. "Whatever else people may think about the media, I think it's times like these when everybody can agree professional, independent journalism really matters to communities.''

As of Monday afternoon, the Carr Fire was just 20 percent contained, although some evacuated residents had been allowed to return home. Benda, who lives just a mile outside town, is among them, but conditions remain fluid enough that he hesitates to bring his important documents back into the house.

He acknowledges it has been harder to separate himself from this story than other ones in his three-decade-long career.

"You're so emotionally invested in it. It's so personal,'' Benda said. "We have 190,000 people in Shasta County. I don't think I'm overstating it when I say it's affecting everybody in Shasta County one way or the other.''

Local News Editor Jenny Espino noted that reporters and photographers took "calculated risks'' to cover the news while staying out of harm's way, and they also had to look out for their families.

"It's our job. There's been no one to step away from this,'' she said. "That's just how it is in journalism. You feel this responsibility to serve the public. We feel proud of the ability to serve the Redding area. That thought is what keeps us going.''

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