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‘Destined to Burn’: AP, media organizations join forces to expose California wildfire risks

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A groundbreaking collaboration among California newspapers and The Associated Press started with a tweet.

Northern California News Editor Juliet Williams saw on Twitter that Lauren Gustus, editor of The Sacramento Bee and regional editor for McClatchy’s west region, was driving to meet with the editor of the Chico Enterprise-Record, a MediaNews paper, to talk about wildfire coverage. Williams reached out to Gustus and offered the AP’s help, and a partnership was born.

The stakes are high in wildfire country:

In late 2018, the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, killed 85 people. The goal of the partnership was to illuminate problems and point to potential solutions to California’s increasingly deadly wildfires.

An analysis of data by McClatchy and AP Los Angeles-based data journalist Angeliki Kastanis revealed that more than 350,000 Californians live in towns and cities that exist almost entirely within “very high fire hazard severity zones” – Cal Fire’s designation for places highly vulnerable to devastating wildfires. These designations have proven eerily predictive about some of the state’s most destructive wildfires in recent years,including the Paradise fire,the worst in state history. An analysis also found that a landmark 2008 building code designed for California’s fire-prone regions – requiring fire-resistant roofs,siding and other safeguards – can make the difference in whether homes burn or not, but there’s little will or planning to retrofit older homes.

The timing of the first package couldn’t have been better, coming just ahead of a new report from California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s wildfire taskforce. The governor mentioned the reporting at his news conference as he promised action on some of the most intractable problems that were tackled in the stories.

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A pedestrian crosses Washington St., one of the few roads leading in and out of Sonora, Calif., April 17, 2019. Residents of Paradise, Calif., forced to flee from the 2018 Camp Fire, became caught in a nightmare traffic jam on narrow winding roads as they tried to evacuate the area. The catastrophe illuminated the grim reality that road systems throughout California are not designed to handle a sudden evacuation. Sonora faces the same issue. – AP Photo / Rich Pedroncelli

The second installment was focused on evacuation planning,and included public information requests for evacuation plans in communities at high risk. Many communities wouldn’t share the information or didn’t have an adequate plan,or any plan at all. And a data analysis by USA TODAY Network-California showed many communities had too few roads for everyone to get out. The AP contributed a story about what California can learn from hurricane evacuations.

Collaborations are something we’re seeing more and more of in the U.S. media landscape. It can be organizations grouping themselves together formally to cover a community or working on an individual project. It’s been notable that instead of “who’s our competitor,” news outlets are asking,“who can work with us?” In this case,AP was at the center of the collaboration. When we engage in projects like these we become more than just a content provider to our customers. We’re in the trenches with them,producing high-impact local coverage that wouldn’t exist in an individual state otherwise.

Partnerships also require a lot of work: on the journalism,managing the relationship,finding resources to fulfill AP’s part,and promoting the stories to ensure the most possible readers. The “Destined to Burn” partnership was managed at every level by West Deputy Director of Newsgathering Anna Jo Bratton, who worked for six months with people throughout the AP and the collaborators to make the partnership a success.

We heavily publicized the package,with advisories,Playbook lines,a data distribution, a hub on APNews.com,a press release, a blog post and a robust social plan. Williams hosted an Ask Me Anything on Reddit with reporters from two collaborators. Play was impressive,with hundreds of downloads of the nearly dozen stories that ran in two installments. Many outlets used the data to report their own stories about local fire risks. One story got nearly two minutes engagement on APNews.com,and stories ran on front pages throughout the state and elsewhere in the West.

And this isn’t the end of the partnership: The next phase will focus on legislative action on wildfire coverage.

For putting the AP at the center of an important collaboration,driving important journalism in a state ravaged by wildfires,and forging a stronger relationship with members,Williams, Kastanis and Bratton win this AP’s Best of the States.

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