SAN FRANCISCO – Journalists have captured searing, intimate images of active and dangerous wildfires burning in California, due in large part to a decades-old state law that guarantees press virtually unfettered access to disaster sites in evacuated areas that are off-limits to the public.
That's not the case everywhere as rules about media access vary by state, and even by government agency.
Wildfires are raging in several states in the western U.S., scorching an unprecedented amount of land, forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes and killing at least 23 people across Oregon, Washington and California. But the images and words the public sees vary greatly because of the level of access granted journalists.
Daniel Berlant, an assistant deputy director with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said beyond the law, California journalists are given free rein because fire officials want the public to understand and see what is at stake.
“During a natural disaster and during a wildfire, people are making decisions about their family and their own safety, and in many cases, people are going to follow our request for evacuations if they’re actually able to see how destructive the disaster is,” he said.
Some other states only allow journalists behind fire lines with escorts, while others rarely grant permission for reporters to get anywhere near an active wildfire, saying that safety is paramount.
New Mexico prohibits journalists from going into areas where wildfires actively are burning, said Wendy Mason, a former television journalist who is now spokeswoman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division. She said journalists could face penalties from local sheriffs offices.
“You certainly would get a good talking to and immediately moved out of the area,” she said.
Scott Stoddard, editor of the Daily Courier in Grants Pass, Oregon, has been arguing for years for that state to match California’s law. Journalists there can’t go past roadblocks without an escort, weakening the coverage that's critical to the community, he said.
It's particularly ridiculous when residents and even campers with reservations are allowed access, but not the people whose job is to inform the public, he said.
“There were no photojournalists to witness those flames," he said of the fire that wiped out much of the small Oregon town of Phoenix. “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."
In Washington state, media can’t go behind fire lines without an escort, protective gear and advance training. Even then, photographers and reporters may be denied access if conditions are too dangerous, said Bobbi Cussins, spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources.
State, federal and tribal agencies in Arizona consider fire behavior and weather air operations among other things before deciding whether to escort journalists in protective gear to the fire line, said Tiffany Davila, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.
“We try to provide as much access as possible and get the reporter as close to the fire without jeopardizing the safety of the journalist and the fire personnel," she said.
News media access to wildfires is severely limited in Colorado and in neighboring Utah. Reporters cannot enter areas that have been evacuated or declared part of a firefighting zone, often leaving journalists miles from the flames and dependent on media briefings by fire officers and local authorities.
County sheriffs decide whether to allow access — and rarely, if ever, grant it during an active fire — under Colorado statute. Utah journalists face similar restrictions.
Because of a 1986 court ruling that enshrined media access, the same California law that allows officials to cordon off areas to the public following a natural disaster specifically allows the media to access them, said Berlant. But he's also had to remind law enforcement tasked with patrolling evacuated areas to let reporters through.
Still, Cal Fire and the Butte County sheriff's office issued a stern warning Friday to journalists saying they would not tolerate actions by “a few members of the media" who have put themselves in danger, impeded firefighting progress and entered private property without permission from the owner.
The law does not apply to wildfires on federal land, and law enforcement is still permitted to cordon off any area that may be a crime scene.
Jim Cross, a longtime radio reporter in Arizona, said the difficulty in covering wildfires is the vastness of the state. Media staging areas often are far from the wildfires themselves with evacuees sent to the closest community.
“Access has always been hard in Arizona,” he said. “It’s way more difficult than California, but I will tell you there are some fires going in California and Oregon now that I don’t even want to be close to. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a wildfire season like this.”
Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, said variety of rules “really kind of boggles the mind," but speedy access to photos, video and first-hand accounts is critical to keeping the public informed.
“The First Amendment is there to protect the right of the public to receive information, and part of receiving information is getting visual images of what’s going on," he said.
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona. Associated Press writers Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington, Jim Anderson in Denver and Sara Cline in Salem, Oregon contributed to this report.