‘This is what fuels West infernos’

The work entitled ‘This is what fuels West infernos’ has been awarded the prize of Climate Change and Environmental Commitment (Digital). The work was published in The Washington Post (USA) and part of the team behind the piece shares with us some of what went in to creating the piece and the challenges they faced.


Could you briefly explain the idea of the story?

Before the North Complex Fire roared through in 2020, Berry Creek, California, had been a community of about 1,200 people. Ancient, 200-foot pines towered over a cluster of homes and vacation cabins. Adults could fish in the lake while their kids splashed down a natural waterslide cut into the rock. Then the blaze came, advancing 25 miles in a single night in September. Lives were lost, and an entire town was destroyed.

What caused these fires so extreme they were almost impossible to extinguish? We put together a team of climate reporters and visual journalists to reconstruct what happened to Berry Creek, day by day, datapoint by datapoint, and explain through mapping the fatal combination that fueled the uncontrollable blaze: record-breaking heat waves, unusual low humidity at night, relentless winds and the thirstiness of the air.

What was the process of working on the graphic? Where did you start? 

Our journalists used this small town in California as a starting point to explain the link between wildfires and climate change. They gathered and stitched drone footage with satellite images to craft a flyover from the remains of the only school in Berry Creek to a view of the entire west coast. They combined these images with weather data and data on wildfires from the National Interagency Fire Center and other government sources.

The team used the open-source mapping software QGIS, coding libraries and custom scripts to automate the production of animated maps, and worked tirelessly to deliver this innovative experience error-free on all platforms and devices.

What has been the challenge of this story?

The most challenging part was creating the flyover. Our reporters went to Berry Creek and the surrounding communities to talk to residents who had to move because of the fire, and to capture the devastation on the ground. But for the flyover, to put the devastation in context, we had to look through a ton of drone footage, find the remains of the only school in Berry Creek and stitch it to satellite images and additional layers of data for a seamless experience.

How have you worked this year?

The whole Washington Post newsroom was sent to work from home mid-March in 2020 and we are still there. The first reporters will start to go back to the newsroom in July and we’re expecting to resume full operations in the office in September. But for almost a year and half we have been working completely remotely. While many in the team appreciate the flexibility remote work provides, and it make it easier for some tasks, coordinating complex projects with several teams such as this one has been a challenge, and everything takes longer.

Apart of that, the pandemic meant that we needed to dedicate a good share of the team resources to cover coronavirus: explain what it is, how it acts, how we’re fighting it. Tracking deaths, cases, vaccinations. On top of that, the United States saw how the killing of George Floyd sparked a race reckoning moment last summer that still last, and we needed to cover, and the most challenging elections to cover in memory.

It’s been a year full of important news we needed to cover in the most unusual environment, so being able to include other important issues, such as climate change, has been complicated. But we needed to make sure we didn’t forget about such important stories just because there are many other horrible things happening.


Monica Ulmanu and Chiqui Esteban

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