How a Heartland TV station covered the massive Carr Fire

The Carr Fire, the sixth-most destructive fire in California history, was a major breaking news event for KHSL. But the event, which burned nearly 230,000 acres was a challenge not just because of the severity of the fire, but because it was actually the first week for the Heartland station’s new digital editor.

We caught up with Alan Marsden, the interim news director of the station, to talk about covering the fires.

First, tell us a little about your market?

We are market 132, hyphenated, with Chico and Redding being the primary communities in the market.  Officially, six counties are part of our DMA, but we basically cover the north end of the Sacramento Valley and extending to the Oregon border.

The California wildfires have been absolutely devastating. Tell us how you approached the coverage of the fires?  

We have been literally blessed with the backing, support and resources of our ownership, Heartland Media, and our consultant, Frank Magid Associates.  We developed a plan of action as part of our preparation.  That plan includes breaking into programming when lives and property are at risk.  Also, continually updating our website, actionnewsnow.com with the very latest information on evacuations, road closures, evacuation shelters, and details on firefighting efforts.  

In the case of the Carr Fire, it started on Monday, July 23 as what could be described as a “noteworthy” fire that was threatening rural communities in Shasta County. By Thursday the fire had exploded in size and by Thursday evening was burning neighborhoods within Redding City limits. At this point we began our wall-to-wall coverage that lasted all or part of six days. This required significant logistical organization, staffing anchors, reporters, photographers, meteorologists, web producers, etc. to maintain our coverage 24 hours a day.

We understand your new digital content manger started the day of the Carr Fire. What was it like for that staff member to jump in during such a huge breaking news story?  

Stephanie Schmieding started on July 23.  Her first two days on the job were with the help of a trainer and the Carr Fire had not turned extraordinary until Thursday, her 2nd solo day. Thankfully, she is a very positive person with extraordinary enthusiasm and energy.  She worked numerous 12 and 14 hour shifts and did not get her first day off until the Thursday of her second week on the job.

It doesn’t seem much of an exaggeration that she received six months experience in 10 days on the job.  So it was intense and it was stressful but she is a much better digital content manager now than she would have been without that experience.  The same can be said for our other new Stephanie, Stephanie Lin, a reporter, who was in her third week on the job and had only done a couple of simple live shots for us prior to our wall-to-wall coverage.  She also got six months of experience in 10 days and quickly turned into a superb live reporter, performing lengthy live hits a couple times per hour during her long 10 to 12 hour shifts.

Is there any coverage of the fires that you are most proud of that you’d like to share?  

The entire stretch of our wall-to-wall coverage was just a herculean feat by all involved. With the support of Heartland, employees worked seemingly endless shifts without complaint. It required our two meteorologists to work 12 hours on 12 hours off for six days. We have a solid group of experience/veteran anchors who went onair for 4 or 5 hours at a time, unscripted. We kind of got it down to a science but that was not yet the case Thursday evening when the fire crossed into the city of Redding, population 90,000 plus. I would say I’m most proud of that stretch those intense hours when we did not yet find a groove, and yet viewers would never have known.

As TV moves to become more multi-platform focused, what kind of work have you done culturally in the newsroom to help with that transition to digital?  

Heartland has made an enormous commitment to dramatically raising the bar with our digital coverage.  The support, and the expectations, are communicated and supported from the top down, at every level.  As a result, non-broadcast platforms are not an afterthought in our newsroom but truly viewed and treated as crucial elements of our brand, “Coverage you can count on.”  And although we have a digital content manager devoted to web and social media, it is truly a group effort within the news department.

Any work you are particularly proud of that you would like to share?  

Every single person in our newsroom, production department and even other departments, feels a tremendous sense of pride in our efforts. From our general manager on down, not one of us had ever experienced a story of this magnitude. It didn’t really start hitting us, as to the impact we were having on the community, until we started having ordinary viewers and citizens showing up at our station with large amounts of food, as an expression of gratitude. We received calls and emails and letters declaring that we were literally saving lives. It was humbling, to say the least. It changed our lives.