California is used to devastating wildfires but the firestorm that swept through wine country north of San Francisco was unlike any other. The devastation was staggering – at least 42 killed and more than 5,700 homes and other structures burned to the ground.
Knickmeyer's experience living with the flames while reporting on them was turned into a compelling first-person narrative.
The series of fires broke out nearly simultaneously late at night and quickly stretched across 100 miles. AP became aware this was no ordinary wildfire in a 4 a.m. call from San Francisco reporter Ellen Knickmeyer, who lives in Napa County where flames were raging and people were fleeing. While concerned her home could fall victim to the flames (it did not, fortunately), Knickmeyer never stopped reporting. Her color and photos from the scene were critical to AP’s early coverage, and her experience living with the flames while reporting on them was turned into a compelling first-person narrative.
AP quickly mobilized staffers throughout California and beyond. And, critically, every staffer in the field contributed in multiple formats. Phoenix-based videojournalist Brian Skoloff, and photographers Jae Hong (Los Angeles) and Marcio Sanchez (San Francisco) put themselves in harm’s way to ensure AP could show the fires and their heart-wrenching impact on people and property.
Skoloff popped up so many places one CalFire captain nicknamed him “Jackrabbit.” Skoloff and Hong produced especially vivid coverage when it appeared the community of Calistoga might be lost. Skoloff ran into firefighters in the downtown area and asked where to go to find the flames. “Go to mile marker 45 on Highway 29,” he was told. He quickly relayed that to Hong and they arrived there just as a hotshot crew was heading in. Skoloff and Hong went into the woods, grabbing tree branches and sliding on their backsides to keep up as firefighters went down a steep hill. TV crews arrived as they came out, their photos and video already sent to AP’s customers.
A day earlier, Skoloff was in Santa Rosa planning to meet a woman desperately searching for her mother. He got the address where the mother lived and went there, prior to the interview. He found the woman’s brother looking through the ashes and quickly filed video. He then did the interview with the woman and just after leaving got a text from her saying her brother had found their mother’s remains. Skoloff quickly called in the news.
Another sad tale was told by Sacramento photographer Rich Pedroncelli. He was in Napa Valley where two sons returned to the home where their parents-- 100-year-old Charles Rippey, and his wife, Sara, 98 -- were killed. He had the first photos of the men at the scene and the first video of one recounting their parents’ lives and tragic end. Pedroncelli’s all-formats coverage gave AP a leg up on what became one of the signature stories to emerge from the tragedy.
Sanchez is a veteran of fire coverage and has a knack for eliciting key information that helps AP be in the right place at the right time. Beyond outstanding work on fire lines, he was the choice to go up with a helicopter pilot. He had a goal that was based on what he had seen on the ground – show the devastation in the city of Santa Rosa, where an astounding 3,000 homes were destroyed, and illustrate how some in the wine industry were flattened while others survived. His image of one intact vineyard next to one totally burned was among the best illustrations of that element of the fire story.
For a week, AP’s wildfire coverage was among the most popular for text, photos and video. The Nerve Center’s handover note from the weekend said “tremendous work across the board by our crew covering the wildfires in northern California allowed the AP to dominate coverage once more, with our stories collectively garnering more than 4,000 source matches on Newswhip.”
For their work in the initial days documenting how the flames devastated people and property, Knickmeyer, Skoloff, Sanchez, Hong and Pedroncelli win this week’s $300 Best of the States award.