AP drew on its regional staff — and local knowledge — to comprehensively document Colorado’s massive winter wildfire that left thousands homeless and renewed fears over climate change.
When a winter grassland fire exploded along Colorado’s Front Range two days before New Year’s, it quickly tore through suburbs between Denver and Boulder. Nearly 1,000 homes were destroyed and tens of thousands were forced to flee as winds up to 115 mph (185 kmph) fanned the flames.
AP staff in all formats rushed to document what is likely the state’s most destructive fire ever. Reporters, video journalists and photographers captured the chaos and fear of the urgent evacuation from a totally unexpected event. Fires are common in the Rocky Mountain area, but such a huge, ruinous blaze in winter is practically unheard of.
“I came out of Whole Foods, which is about a half-mile from ground zero, and felt like I had to jump in my car and make a dash for my life as the smoke and wind and nearby flames were engulfing the area,” said Lafayette resident Susie Pringle.
The AP crew provided all-formats coverage from Thursday through the weekend. AP sports editor Dave Zelio — whose own family was forced to flee — was able to provide the first video and photo coverage of the massive flames on Day One, providing AP with a quick competitive edge at the start and keeping AP well ahead in the following days.
As authorities sought the cause of the blaze, they said a search warrant had been issued but offered no further details. Reporters found what is believed to be the site — a National Guard Humvee blocked access to the property, but AP confirmed with a sheriff’s official on the scene that the investigation was centered there.
When staffers ventured into the 9.4 square miles (24 square kilometers) burn area they found rubble and shocked residents sifting through the remains. Reporters in the field, including video journalists Eugene Garcia and Brittany Peterson, along with reporter Thomas Peipert, traversed a slippery, snowy landscape, often walking several miles to get to the damaged neighborhoods as residents returned to their homes. Peterson rode a bicycle one day to get around more quickly as the trio worked in all formats, providing live video, video edits, audio, still photos and text feeds in frigid conditions.
Also contributing heavily to the coverage were reporters Colleen Slevin, Jim Anderson and Patty Nieberg, as well as photographers David Zalubowski and Jack Dempsey.
Investigative reporter Martha Bellisle wrote a separate story, documenting that even though this huge blaze was surprising, experts say such conflagrations will become more common as climate change warms the planet and suburbs grow in fire-prone areas, known as the wildland-urban interface. Temperatures in Colorado between June and December were the warmest on record, which helped make the surrounding area a tinder box.
During a busy week for news, the initial fire coverage was among the top stories on AP News for the week and various AP video edits combined for more than 1,200 downloads.
For compelling coverage in text, photo and video of this horrific fire — and for placing the blaze in the larger context of global warming in the American West — the team of Garcia, Zelio, Peipert, Slevin, Anderson, Bellisle, Peterson, Nieberg, Zalubowski and Dempsey is AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner.