Ahead of the fire

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: United States

Organisation: The Arizona Republica and USA TODAY

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 22/07/2019

Credit: Mitchell Thorson, Ryan Marx, Ramon Padilla, Veronica Bravo, Karl Gelles, Shawn Sullivan

Project description:

After last year’s deadly wildfire in Paradise, California, The Arizona Republic set out to find the places in Western wildfire country that face similar risks.

Working with partner newsrooms in the USA TODAY Network, we found many threatened communities are in our back yards, our vacation spots, and are home to friends and relatives. Understanding the risks across 11 western states is a national story, but in our newsrooms it is a local story, too.



Impact reached:

The disaster of the Camp Fire was caused both by fire hazard and human risk factors: who could escape, who could survive. Those hazards and factors are present in hundreds of small communities across the West.

A lookup tool published with the project allows you to see each community’s risk factors in relative to all communities in the West. 


Techniques/technologies used:

Evacuation constraints were calculated by dividing the number of households by the number of major roads that exit a community.

Larson’s analysis also estimated the share of residents who live in mobile home parks using Department of Homeland Security infrastructure data. Fire spreads exceptionally fast through mobile home parks, which typically have limited evacuation routes.  

Mitchell Thorson, Ryan Marx, Ramon Padilla and Shawn Sullivan of USA TODAY analyzed and visualized the data for display. 

As this report shows, when the fire arrives, the risks will be human risks, and preparation might be the difference between a close call and becoming the next Paradise. 

What was the hardest part of this project?

Investigative reporter Dennis Wagner, who has covered wildfires in the West for more than 35 years, including the Dude, Rodeo-Chedeski, Wallow and Yarnell Hill fires, reported on the risk factors. For this project, interviewed scientists, forestry officials and community leaders. 

Visual journalist Thomas Hawthorne, who covered the aftermath of the Camp Fire, traveled with reporting teams and led the process of developing and editing video stories on each community. 

Reporters and visual journalists from across the West joined the effort, identifying communities in their states with high hazard scores and other risk factors. The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, the Redding Record Searchlight, the Coloradoan in Fort Collins, the Great Falls Tribune in Montana, the Salem Statesman Journal in Oregon and the Kitsap Sun in Washington sent teams to interview residents and officials and photograph their communities from the ground and air. 

In all, nine reporters and seven visual journalists across eight states found communities working to reduce their risks of wildfire even as they confront the inevitable: Big fires will happen.

What can others learn from this project?

Reporting for this project began with data reporter Pamela Ren Larson’s unprecedented analysis of Western communities at risk for wildfire, including how a disaster in those communities could be compounded by residents’ age and disability, limited road networks, and housing type.

The analysis began with the U.S. Forest Service’s Wildfire Hazard Potential (WHP), which assigns a score to every 18-acre parcel of land in the country. The higher the score, the higher the probability the place will experience a catastrophic wildfire.

That data was paired with more than 5,000 Census-designated places, the most comprehensive information on where people live in the United States. WHP scores were averaged for each community, plus the area one mile beyond their boundaries.

The analysis focuses on communities of fewer than 15,000 households. Large cities’ wildfire potential is most accurately determined by neighborhood, like a canyon community, than the broader metropolitan area. For example, even in a city like Los Angeles, where wildfire is a threat, most of the population lives in areas with low wildfire potential.

Wildfire hazard was combined with the other characteristics that make a community vulnerable to a disaster: percentage of residents who are disabled or elderly; percentage of residents who don’t speak English well; whether a community is authorized to broadcast alerts to all cellphones in range; and residents’ ability to evacuate in a disaster.

Project links: