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Building trust proves essential for telling the stories of wildfire victims

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

Building trust proves essential for telling the stories of wildfire victims

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A wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes in Redding, California, in 2018.
A wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes in Redding, California, in 2018.
(Photos: April Ehrlich/Jefferson Public Radio)

After two years of enduring smoke-filled weeks and wildfires threatening people’s lives, my newsroom at Jefferson Public Radio braced for the worst this summer. We put together “go bags” in case we had to hit the road suddenly to cover a fire, and we purchased bright yellow fire-protection uniforms and helmets. Thankfully, we didn’t get any major wildfires this season, so our equipment remained unopened in the closet.

Our region covers a vast rural area stretching from Mendocino County in California up to Lane County in Oregon. It’s largely made up of dense pine-covered forests, occasionally broken up by a small town or a medium-sized city like Redding or Medford. We have a long history with wildfire, but recently, that relationship has become more deadly.

The Carr Fire hit our region hard in 2018. It destroyed thousands of homes in Shasta County and killed eight people. That same year, the University of Washington and the Nature Conservancy produced a study that concluded that wildfires leave the most lasting impacts on people of color and people who are economically vulnerable. This year I delved deeper into our wildfire coverage to see how that study applies to our region. I focused on four groups: people of Latino or Hispanic descent, people with disabilities, people who are homeless, and people who are Native American. This project would include four in-depth radio features analyzing how wildfires impact public health in rural California. It would require a lot of traveling and a lot of community outreach, which is where the USC Annenberg School of Journalism’s California Fellowship came in.

First, I needed to find people with stories to tell. That sounded easy enough, but it turned out to be my biggest challenge.

Like many rural areas, far Northern California counties have sparse and strained resources that serve marginalized groups. I had trouble finding people who could connect me with Latinx people or other communities. The agencies that I did find were already busy enough helping people who needed it; they hardly had time to deal with a pesky reporter.

There was also a trust factor. Here I was, a stranger dropping into people’s lives, asking that they tell me their deeply personal stories from a traumatic event. How would they know that I won’t exploit their sorrow for web clicks? And if they’ve immigrated from another country, how would they know that my reporting wouldn’t expose and endanger them? There are a lot of reasons why “the media” has become a derogatory term; some of those reasons may be unfair, but journalists aren’t entirely blameless for losing public trust.

I needed to build up that trust. I started by using community engagement ideas that I learned from the California Fellowship training. I designed a page where people could tell me their stories by filling out a Google Form embedded on our website. I had a version of that page translated into Spanish by an experienced translator, who helped me choose culturally appropriate words that would make people feel comfortable in telling their stories on the web. I emailed that link to my new and developing sources; I asked that they share the links on their Facebook pages and in emails to their colleagues.

I also created a phone number that people could call and leave a voicemail. I had a translator voice a greeting in Spanish: “Para español, marque uno… Hola y gracias por llamar a la estación de radio Jefferson Public Radio ...” Then I printed flyers and posted them all over Shasta County, where the Carr Fire had recently destroyed thousands of homes. Those flyers listed a link to my page with the Google Form embedded on it and the phone number that they could call.

I got a few responses, but not nearly as many as I had hoped. That was OK. It was just the beginning of establishing trust with my sources and the region at large. These efforts at the very least showed how much I cared about truly hearing people’s stories, however they wanted to tell them.

The next step was meeting people face to face. I spent several days in back-to-back interviews across Shasta and Tehama counties. Those interviews led to more interviews. People recommended me to their friends and colleagues. Slowly, the community’s trust in me was building.

Ernesto Carrillo owns Carrillo's Mexican Store in Redding. He's one of the few people in Shasta County translating important information into Spanish for the public.

I ended up finding a whole network of interconnected people in separate communities. I learned that when the Carr Fire hit Redding last year, not everyone received alerts on their phones, and not everyone understood what they meant, because all of the alerts were only in English. Instead, people relied on their friends and family for information about the oncoming wildfire and evacuation notices. They kept each other informed about the state of their homes during mandatory evacuations (“Is it still there? Is it vandalized?”), and they told each other where to find shelter. They welcomed each other into their homes. They helped each other get food, clothing and transportation.

When I was in Redding the day after the Carr Fire hit, it seemed like these things were easily accessible to everyone. There seemed to be free food and clothing everywhere. But I realize now that it was all at the emergency shelters, and not everyone had access to those. Latino families were wary of shelters for several reasons: There wasn’t any signage in Spanish to make them feel welcome, most of the staff and volunteers were white, and there were government logos everywhere. People with disabilities struggled to find transportation to these shelters, and when they got there, sleeping on a cot in a gym posed another challenge. And people who are homeless are barred from emergency shelters altogether due to federal laws.

I came away from this project with hours of tape and four hefty features. I concluded the series with a group that incorporates culture into fire management: the Yurok Tribe in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, which reaches far into its past and taps into ancestral forest burning — what the U.S. Forest Service now calls “prescribed burning.”

Centuries of living on their land taught Native Americans how to use fire as a tool for thinning forests of dead and dying vegetation. Native Americans long learned how to do cultural burns safely and at what time of year to do them. These burns in turn killed pests that plagued their crops, provided materials they used in regalia and basket weaving, and created an activity that connected tribal elders and youth.

In recent years, modern Western forest management has embraced the idea of using fire as a forest-thinning tool. Perhaps in time it will also learn how to weave in the vast array of personal histories, cultural outlooks, and complex needs that represent our diverse communities. The very basis of that, though, starts with building trust through listening; hearing what people have to say, how they want to say it, and in a way that ensures their comfort and safety.

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