Turning Wildfire into a Community Health Story

Published on
July 30, 2009

We live in California. That means wildfire. But in some areas, particularly poor rural ones surrouned by federal forest land, the smoke could be slowly making residents sick.

This spring, the Redding Record Searchlight teamed with the Center for California Health Care Journalism to discover that last summer's wildfires made many poor, elderly residents seriously ill. Some continue to have chronic respiratory problems a year later.

Our reporting, which focused on ancedotal, but doctor-verified, residents' accounts, found that few in the medical field were studying the long-term effects of years of smoke on residents' lungs. We also found that air-quality concerns were a secondary consideration in federal firefighting officials' fire-management decisions.

The stories led to changes this summer in the way the U.S. Forest Service managed at least one wildfire. More air-quality sensors were put in place, and fire commanders said they were working quickly to contain the fire so that residents wouldn't have to endure months of smoke, like they would in years past.

I think the stories did a nice job looking at a health disparity in a small rural area. They also showed how residents' health can play a role in the larger environmental and forest-policy debates. The story served as a "Why-you-should-care" introduction to a multi-part series we did on fire and forest management.

It's also worth noting that this whole project started after I met the Center's editor Richard Kipling last summer at a fellowship seminar down in LA.

Unfortunately, the Record Searchlight recently went through a Web site redesign, and a lot of our formatting for the series didn't make it through, so keep that in mind if you'd care to look at the mainbar:

There's still much to learn about long-term health effects of last year's fires

And the sidebars:

Mountain residents have no doubt smoke made them sick

Hoopa tribe leads battle against smoke's ill effects

How to protect yourself from smoke

Also, here's our look at how our stories led to change this year (and how some aren't happy about it):

Big shift in fire tactics evident on Backbone Fire

Ecologists decry efforts to douse fire

The original health stories look a lot better in our print edition, so if you'd like me to e-mail .pdf copies of them, feel free to ask. My e-mail is rsabalow@redding.com; my number is (530) 225-8344.