One morning in November 2018, Jim Wilson was on a three-hour drive to Paradise, Calif., to cover the Camp fire, which would turn out to be the deadliest fire in California history. The fire had just ripped through 17 miles of wooded foothills in 12 hours, catching Paradise by surprise. Mr. Wilson, a New York Times photographer based in Oakland, was going through a checklist in his head. He had packed his fire-resistant Nomex clothing, his helmet and an emergency fire blanket. But what about the things he couldn’t anticipate?
“It’s important to understand that you are taking a risk when you go into these areas,” Mr. Wilson said, “and to have some sort of a plan for what happens if you get blocked in on the road by a fallen tree, or you get flat tires.”
A fire can move rapidly in unpredictable paths and with varying intensity, and reporters are often sent to cover them on short notice. The golden rule is to plan ahead.
California is one of the few states that allows journalists to get close to wildfires, so Nomex gear is a must-have for them. Also helpful are sleeping bags, food and water in case they get stuck or have to remain in the field for extended periods of time, and paper maps and satellite phones.
“My car turns into a rolling convenience store,” said Thomas Fuller, The Times’s San Francisco bureau chief, who has covered wildfires in the state for six years. He brings two satellite phones with him when he sets out, one for data and one for calls. Cellular service commonly cuts out when a conflagration intensifies.
“You have to be prepared to be off the grid for a while,” Mr. Fuller said.
Simon Romero, a Times correspondent in Albuquerque who covers the Southwest, said he keeps a go bag with snacks and clothes ready at home. This year, Mr. Romero has been covering the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire in northern New Mexico, the largest in the state’s history. The fire started after two prescribed burns set by U.S. Forest Service spun out of control — in April.
“People would talk about a ‘fire season’ before,” Mr. Romero said. “Now, it’s just about year-round in a place like New Mexico or Arizona.”
Not only are fires in the American West starting earlier in the year, they are increasing in intensity and severity, too. Last year, the Dixie fire swept through the mountain forests of Northern California, burning an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. Annie Correal, a reporter now on the Audio team in New York, felt a personal calling: She had grown up in the area, and several of her relatives lived in a highland valley encircled by the blaze. Ms. Correal had covered tornadoes and hurricanes, but never a wildfire. When she was asked to write about her family, one of several who decided not to evacuate, she boarded a flight out West.
“I reached out to other reporters who had covered fires more often, or more recently, and asked for their basic advice on what I would need,” Ms. Correal said.
A respirator and an N95 mask designed for smoke were at the top of the list. The smoke was so intense, she said, that she slept with a mask on. Even so, she suffered from what someone told her was “the Day 1 headache.”
“Basically, you get sick from the smoke before you’ve acclimated,” she said.
Mr. Wilson still remembers the smoke from his drive toward the Camp fire in 2018. “It went from being a bright 1 o’clock afternoon to being completely dark, even with headlights on,” he said.
Mr. Wilson had been to Paradise once before, but when he arrived, the town was unrecognizable — buildings were burned to the ground, power lines had collapsed onto the ashy earth. By the time it was over, the Camp Fire killed dozens of people in Paradise. Despite the potential for danger, Mr. Wilson exited his car as soon as he got there and went to work, spending the next several hours documenting the devastation.
“We just try to do the best that we can to get out there, to show what’s happened and to cover stories of the people who were impacted,” Mr. Wilson said.