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Where are Oregon's Wildfire Photos?
State policy prevents journalists from accurately and comprehensively documenting the destruction caused by Oregon's fires.
This year has been another awful wildfire season for Oregon. The Bootleg Fire burned more than 413,000 acres, and at one point sent smoke as far away as New York City. But how many images did of the fire did you actually see?
Stop and think about it. Maybe you saw a photo. But are you sure it was from the Bootleg Fire? Or did you only see the same few photos that were released from the state and recycled on repeat?
Turns out you may have not seen a current image of the fire at all. I watched a clip on the national evening news about the Bootleg Fire that showed stock photos of wildfires…from California. The segment was about Oregon, but it didn’t show an actual photo of an Oregon fire.
How could that be? In Oregon, journalists are only able to go to a fire zone, or behind a fire line, if they are escorted by a fire official. And, when fires are blazing—and fire crews are stretched thin—should it be the responsibility of a fire official to take the time to escort a journalist to a fire zone?
Seems to me that there’s got to be a better policy for Oregon to follow. California offers one potential policy and, I think it’s a policy the Oregon Legislature should take a hard look at. In California, journalists are allowed by law to visit fire zones unaccompanied by fire officials. The justification? When there are evacuation orders, people need to know how destructive something is, and the media needs to help spread the word. The only way journalist can honestly tell the story of a fire is by being at the actual fire.
The Oregon Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) has been working hard to change this law. The SPJ is pushing a bill in the Oregon Legislature to change the state’s law. But, unfortunately, the bill didn’t make it out of committee in the most recent session.
If the bill is successful in the future, there are important questions to make it successful. Thankfully, again, California provides us with a good model to consider. One question quickly comes to mind: How do we keep journalists safe in an active fire zone? The answer from California is to require reporters to bring their own gear.
As April Ehrlich, President of Oregon SPJ, recently told OPB Radio, “We already have another state to look to….and that’s California. It’s been working out really well for that state, in my opinion, and I think that any qualified journalist going into a dangerous situation will know how to handle themselves. That’s part of the job.”
Of course, there are other things that would need to be worked out before a bill could advance. But I am confident that we can address questions like who constitutes as a journalist, and who would monitor credentials? Should only major news organizations be allowed to credential a journalist, or should the local sheriff provide the credentials (as is the case in California)?
The Oregon Legislature can and must answer these questions and pass this legislation. In the context of climate change, accurate news and depictions of that news are more important than ever. These fires are super charged because of our hotter climate. When the rest of the country only sees a small snippet of the Bootleg Fire on the national news, it should be accompanied by an actual image of the destruction.
More accurate news could change how we respond to that news. Just ask Scott Stoddard, the editor of the Daily Courier in Grants Pass. He is a proponent of changing Oregon’s law. Referring to the 2020 fires that burned through Talent, Oregon, Stoddard told the Associated Press last year, “There were not photojournalists to witness those flames. It’s either photos provided by an agency or residents, and that seems out of balance when the professional storytellers aren’t there on the scene.”
They say words matter—and in the case of wildfire growth, containment, and destruction—photos, accurate images, and the power of storytelling does too. Climate change feels like one of the biggest stories we could possibly talk about this summer, but we are missing a really important element—images that capture their full impact on the state we love.
Kristina is the Communications Director for the Oregon Department of Justice. She is a 6th generation Oregonian.