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Memories still scorch a year later

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By Doug Bell

A fellow editor recently referred to me as an “excrement magnet”— and those of you familiar with editors know that this phrase has been modified for a family-friendly publication. I have found myself at ground zero for stories ranging from the JonBenet Ramsey slaying to the school shootings at Columbine and Platte Canyon high schools and Deer Creek Middle School. At my first post-college newspaper job in southwest Missouri, a tornado leveled my neighborhood, and I was interviewing stunned victims — my neighbors — just a few minutes after the winds abated and I had found a way through the police barricades.
These news events typically turned out to be David-versus-Goliath coverage situations, as the publications I worked for suddenly had to deal with network news crews, helicopter-borne cameras and star-struck local residents.
On a late-March day last year, my sense of déjà vu was undeniable, as smoldering embers from a 3-day-old prescribed burn flared in violent winds 6 miles south of Conifer. The news-room scanner became frantic with reports of a wildfire at midday; by evening, the staff at Evergreen Newspapers knew we were grappling with the biggest story of the year in our coverage areas.
The blaze ravaged 4,100 acres, killing three residents and destroying more than 20 homes. In the aftermath, our coverage dealt with the victims, the heroes, and the inexplicable conduct of the State Forest Service in failing to adequately monitor the burn over that weekend as wind speeds gradually built to a howling rampage.
But that was the easy part. For a small staff still in production on two of that week’s papers, the realization that we would soon be competing with the network news operations came just as our staff’s energy levels hit their lowest levels of the week.
Access to the areas nearest the flames was difficult in the first few days, and our own budget doesn’t accommodate helicopters. So reporter Gabrielle Zastrocky and photo editor Gabriel Christus relied on their wits and their determination to bring the story to our readers.
Both Gabby and Gabe are graduates of the Metro State journalism program, where contributing editor Deb Hurley Brobst and I have taught for many years — and there is an appalling moment of self-doubt like no other when you send former students into a conflagration like the Lower North Fork Fire.
This week’s issue contains stories about one local family a year later and about the legislation and other changes that have resulted from the man-made catastrophe.
But for many victims of the blaze, reclaiming their lives and any sense of normalcy remains a distant goal. And as fire season looms, local residents remember — and watch the wind speeds — as we head into another dry summer.

Doug Bell is the editor of Evergreen Newspapers.