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The language of natural disasters

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Firefighters from San Mateo work to extinguish flames from the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, Calif., on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019.

Ethan Swope, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — On Thursday morning I woke up and while still half-asleep, began reading the day’s headlines. My stomach dropped. “Large, fast-moving wildfire explodes in Sonoma County, prompting evacuations.” Sonoma County is where I grew up, where my aunts, uncles, cousins, mother and dearest friends live. 

My brain went haywire. How fast? What part of the county was in flames? I quickly skimmed the article and tried to figure out exactly where the fire blazed. I took half a breath: the fire was farther north, my loved ones were safe. I’d only been awake for three minutes and started crying.

The burning of Sonoma County was front page news — again. 

By Monday, the Kincade Fire spread across 66,000 acres and 185,000 people were forced to evacuate. “With raging fires, high winds and blackouts, California is living a disaster movie,” one USA Today headline read.

The language of natural disasters is a double-edged sword. As a reporter, I understand the desire to convey the severity of the situation; as a relative and friend of the people living in wildfire prone country, the headlines make me lose my mind.

Reading the news, I picture our home, with its wood porch and yellow roses covering the roof, engulfed in darkness and flames. I’ve left my family in Armageddon. 

Growing up in California is learning to contend with nature’s extremes. It’s occasionally waking up to the earth shaking you out of bed. It’s praying for rain, only to have floods wash thick slabs of mud into your home. You steel yourself and try to remember how to protect your neck if the house happens to fall down. But with the wildfires, Californians’ nerves are starting to fray. 

“I’ve noticed that neighbors are using the word apocalyptic much more casually these days,” Thomas Fuller, the San Francisco bureau chief of The New York Times, wrote.

There’s another word that people in my sleepy hometown have been using, although, not casually: PTSD. My mom says it on the phone. A local journalist says it. My cousin writes about it on Facebook. Only, the trauma is not in the past, it’s in the moment, and it’s probably in the future too.

When the Sonoma Complex Fires broke out in October of 2017, 110,700 acres burned, 24 people died, and almost 7,000 buildings were destroyed. Articles and headlines also zeroed in on the terror and destruction.

Then, as now, the fires were “raging” and “ravaging.” The winds “ripped.” Flames “burst.”

There was a media blitz, and without going directly to local media outlets, it was easy to get mired in splashy headlines that failed to deliver meaningful information.

I frantically called my mother several times a day from New York City, where I had started graduate school a few months earlier. I wouldn’t calm down until she left town. At one point, she sent me a picture of three little girls, my cousins, perched on a fence looking across the vineyards at the plumes of smoke rising out of the hillside. “We’re fine,” she texted. “We’ll leave as soon as we have to.” 

People want to know if their families are safe, if their homes are OK above all else, Sarah Stierch, a freelance journalist based in Sonoma who has been providing minute by minute updates on Facebook and Twitter, told me. 

Stierch’s coverage focuses on the practical. Where donations are needed for evacuees, which roads are closed, and even a link to a website where volunteers can cook and host dinners for those who have fled their homes. 

The sensationalism doesn’t help, Stierch says. “It’s really hard for people to to weed through.”

The Press Democrat created a map of the evacuation zones, shelters and power outages. KQED, the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and the Mercury News have also all been providing the kinds of information those affected by the disaster need the most. 

Most in Sonoma County already know how frightening and devastating the wildfires are — they need accurate and timely information rather than fearmongering headlines.

I asked Stierch what she thinks national outlets can do to help. “Media needs to be a first responder in a whole different way. A first responder in providing the information, and then providing whatever narrative you want to give it.”

My stomach still tumbles and a sharp pain hits my chest when I read about the “apocalyptic” fires consuming the county. But then, my mom texts me. She’s home, the power is back on, the fire still isn’t near my town and she is “GRATEFUL.” They are safe, and our house is still standing.