The Camp wildfire that consumed Paradise, California, claimed 85 lives while virtually burning the town off the map. But beyond those facts lay a rich narrative of the individuals who perished while calling Paradise home.
AP San Francisco reporters Janie Har and Jocelyn Gecker set out to tell the stories of the victims of the deadly Paradise fire far more comprehensively than was possible in the immediate aftermath: Who were they? Where and when did they die? Did they even have a chance to flee? Did their families hold authorities accountable?
To paint a picture of how the tragedy unfolded, the pair spent months tracking down family members – many of whom were wary – to talk about their loved ones, assuring them that AP’s coverage would be more than a recitation of the grim facts. Interviews with California fire officials, a newly available simulation of the fire’s movement on the fateful morning and public records requests enabled AP to give the exact locations of where people died and their approximate times of death.
The result was a riveting package that coupled intimate portraits of the victims with the circumstances of their death. Most never had a chance to flee their homes as the fast-moving fire barreled through.
In addition to the mainbar, sprinkled with family photos of the victims gathered by the reporters, and new lead images by photographer Rich Pedroncelli, Har and Gecker wrote longer vignettes of the victims, under “Lives Lost.”. An interactive map by New York top stories artist Francois Duckett showed the locations of all the victims, some with family photos, and the movement of the fire based on the public records. A video piece pegged to the 100-day anniversary of the fire, by Los Angeles video journalist Krysta Fauria, accompanied the story.
Also marking the anniversary, stringer photographer Noah Berger, who anchored the original fire coverage, showed the current state of devastation in Paradise, including some remarkable works of art that have risen from the rubble. That was accompanied by Los Angeles reporter Brian Melley’s story on the long road to recovery 100 days out.
The moving package was well-received by members throughout California and from coast-to-coast, including The Washington Post and the Houston Chronicle. The mainbar had more than 37,000 pageviews with strong engagement, and the interactive had 50,000 views.
For carrying the Paradise story forward with enterprising, sensitive work that focused on the victims’ narratives, Har and Gecker share this week’s Best of the States award.