California’s news staff still was in the midst of reporting the tragic night-spot shooting in Thousand Oaks, outside Los Angeles, when news reached the AP that a wildfire in Northern California was spreading quickly, sending thousands fleeing. And before long, another wildfire broke out – near Thousand Oaks itself – a gut punch for the community still reeling from the shooting.
Bay Area freelance photographer Noah Berger, as good a fire chaser as there is anywhere, tipped the office off that the Northern California fire looked explosive. By 11 a.m. Sacramento reporter Don Thompson was hitting the road, and a first AP NewsAlert moved saying people fleeing for their lives had abandoned vehicles as the fire swept in.
As the wildfire bore down on the small community of Paradise, the scope of the disaster was becoming clear. The devastation would prove to be beyond even the worst of recent years. Within a week, the confirmed toll sat at 56 dead and was expected to climb, with hundreds reported missing, the country’s deadliest wildfire in a century.
AP’s all-formats coverage went into high gear, with staffers pouring in from the region. In addition to Thompson, who stayed at the scene with fire crews for several days straight, Portland, Ore., all-formats reporter Gilly Flaccus arrived, producing unmatched interviews in text and video of survivors and of crews searching through the burnt rubble for the remains of those killed. San Francisco reporter Paul Elias gathered information on the dramatic rescues and chaotic evacuation including that sheriff’s officials were using bulldozers to push vehicles out of the way.
Las Vegas photographer John Locher and Denver videographer Peter Banda joined Berger in providing gripping visuals from the scene. Many of Peter’s videos had hundreds of hits on Teletrax, including one of the first showing burnt out cars and destroyed buildings and homes that got nearly 650 uses recorded on Teletrax, which tracks video usage on international broadcasters.
AP was first to report thousands of homes destroyed, pressing a fire captain who had seen the devastation to quantify the scope of the loss Thursday evening: “Pretty much the entire community of Paradise is destroyed,” he said, leaving everyone to credit AP for an entire cycle.
AP was also first to report a named victim on Sunday, describing how officials had taken a man to what remained of his home and shown him where his infirm wife failed to make it out. And after interviewing a man searching for his mother, we were alone in accompanying a search and recovery crew in all formats as they went to the mother’s home and found her remains.
The coverage was nuanced and emotional: AP told stories of those searching for missing loved ones and of the trauma for firefighters who couldn’t fight fire at all, only try to save people.
Competitors scrambled to keep up with exclusive photo coverage; several of our video downloads each scored more than 300 hits on Teletrax over the weekend, with at least three exceeding 600, and clients praising our extensive Live coverage.
Some of our video edits on the human side of the tragedy were unmatched.
Berger, Thompson, Flaccus, Elias, Locher and Banda were not alone in the heroic work. California News Editor Frank Baker says there was no one on the California staff who didn’t contribute to the outstanding coverage, working unrelentingly right after last week’s elections and mass shooting.
In the space of three days, staffers in California covered the midterm election, the Thousand Oaks mass shooting and devastating wildfires.
“This level of coverage simply doesn’t happen without superior commitment and teamwork,” he wrote the staff. “We have those in spades from the California staffers and those from outside who have helped with coverage.”
For outstanding work, bolstered and supported by California’s all-formats reporting staff and editors, Thompson, Flaccus, Elias, Berger, Locher and Banda share this AP's Best of the Week.