The Western Wildfires

Dispatch by Bill Redeker
ABC News Correspondent, Denver

A typical day can begin at 3:00 a.m. when we begin positioning ourselves for Good Morning America. Systems (lights, cameras, audio lines, and IFB circuits) need to be fully functional one hour before air time. Since New York is two hours ahead of the Intermountain West, that means we have to be "checked out" beginning at 4 a.m. for a 5 a.m. (local) broadcast. It doesn't seem to matter to our editors that many times, it's still dark out..they say they want the "immediate feel" live two-way communication brings to the broadcast.

And it's not just the correspondent who gets up at these pre-dawn hours. A typical "live" crew requires a producer who coordinates the logistics, a cameraman, sound technician, and satellite truck operator. Sometimes, a video tape editor is required. And if the budget is no object (when's the last time you heard that?) a lighting crew and director can be added.

The day continues with Mid West and Western updates for those time zones. Finally, by 10 a.m. (9 a.m. West Coast) we're "goodnighted" (cleared) and ready to work on World News Tonight. The rest of the day is spent coordinating coverage and, as a correspondent, personally getting out in the field to at least one location before returning to write and edit the story.

Again, since we operate on East Coast time, the story has to be written, approved by New York based editors (including Peter Jennings), recorded, edited against the pictures, and transmitted no later than a few minutes before air time (6:30 p.m., New York...4:30 p.m. Mountain).

Once we've assembled the pictures and interviews, I spend about an hour writing the script. In a fully functioning satellite truck, I have at my disposal access to wire service reports, major newspapers, our affiliated TV station material (which can be critical), our editors and reporters in New York and elsewhere.

It's not always that easy. Last week, while covering the Hayman fire, nothing worked. So, I sat in the back of a truck and wrote the story long hand and dictated my copy to editors in New York. This probably consumed another hour worth of work. I also had no access to screening equipment. I was "walked through" what pictures and interviews had already been fed to our people in New York from three different locations. Usually a "catcher" (producer) in New York provides that information.

Somehow, at the end of the broadcast day, it all came together and looked pretty good. I credit good photographers and good editors--and we have some of the best--and heads up work by our affiliated stations.

Still, the work day is not over. Our dot-com service always wants a print version of the day's events and they are not happy with a simple re-write. A new takeout of up to a thousand words takes another hour.

Meanwhile, our camera crew is back taking pictures of a townhall meeting for use in the next day's morning news story. The overnight news broadcast also needs to be fed.. usually an on camera de-brief that will be supplemented with pictures already in New York. Finally, Nightline. Usually because of the long hours, that broadcast assigns their own coverage team but occasionally they ask for a live on camera debrief of the correspondent.

For the first three days, that's the schedule until someone in a position of authority notices we're all beginning to get a little cranky for lack of sleep. A second coverage team is usually brought in to cover the morning broadcasts, freeing us up for a little more sleep and more energetic field coverage. This is infinitely better than being tethered to a "live truck" which is what the morning news broadcast requires--and what cable outlets thrive on.

The above applies when covering major fires like the Hayman in Colorado or the Show Low inferno in Arizona. If the fire is smaller we usually end up with one coverage team which pulls duty around the clock.

Interest in these stories depends on two factors; threat to high value land and structures and the news hole of the broadcast (how many other stories are competing for air time). And of course, good--no--"great" pictures can always push their way on air.

In Colorado, getting access inside the perimeter or to the fire line is exceptionally difficult given restrictions imposed after 14 firefighters died during the Storm King Mountain fire in 1994. California fires are a lot more accessible perhaps due to that state's media awareness. We've found that both state and federal forestry officials there are exceptionally helpful. Washington state is another difficult state, again because of recent firefighter fatalities. Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico are more flexible.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a trend toward separating the media from fire camps, which makes our job a little more difficult..a little more time consuming. Last year at the Glacier National Park fire, someone poked their camera into a tent to get pictures of weary firefighters sleeping and that was the end to our use of the fire camp.

Bill Redeker

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