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Inside the newsroom: California’s burning, so can we talk about empathy?

Are you entitled to your suffering?

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Firefighters take refuge in their trucks in a cleared field as a wildfire also known as the Hennessey Fire jumped Knoxville Berryessa Road, west of Sacramento, Calif., on Tuesday.

Kent Porter, The Press Democrat via AP

SALT LAKE CITY — Inside the newsroom each morning our teams gather (now through Zoom), to go through story ideas, look at trending topics, assess the needs of the reading public and determine what the Deseret News can bring to the state and national conversation.

Thursday morning was no exception. In addition to the big news of the day — the close of the Democratic National Convention and Joe Biden’s speech to the nation; the Utah state Legislature’s sixth special session of the year; the latest COVID-19 numbers and their impact on schools and businesses — there was this: California is burning. Again.

I called a writer friend of mine who lives in Napa. Derek Moore has covered fires, floods, earthquakes and was part of a team of Press Democrat reporters who won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news covering the devastation of the Tubbs Fire. That firestorm in 2017 claimed more than 6,200 homes and took 40 lives during its 23-day rampage through four Northern California counties.

“Tell me what’s happening? How are you doing?” I asked.

The conversation about flames on the ridge, evacuation sirens and homes lost, quickly turned to a single focused topic: the impact on his family. That’s what the fires in California, or hurricanes on the East Coast, are really about. And in the case of Derek and his family, this is the fourth consecutive year that fires are actively threatening nearby.

I asked him to write about his family experience.

Derek’s personal essay published later that night at Deseret.com included the following beginning:

“On a week when my 12-year-old son is starting the new school year with an untested model of remote learning amid a raging pandemic, he and I stare out the picture window of our Napa, California, home at a terrifyingly familiar sight.

“Miles away, across Napa Valley where ripening grapes are starting to be harvested without the usual hordes of tourists, a massive smoke plume from an out-of-control wildfire towers in the sky.

“Oh no,” Jack says, stamping his feet. He asks if we should call a relative to ask about using her vacation home on the Central Coast, like we have in the past when we have been forced to flee smoke and flames.”

He then recounts the impact of fires, evacuations, remote learning and blackouts on his family and others. Some readers felt his pain. Fires have plagued the area year after year. This is a place where floods and earthquakes are already a consistent threat to residents.

Other readers decided this was an opportunity to respond aggressively and attack. Focus on a stereotype: California’s Wine Country. The people here must be spoiled and entitled. One commenter on the story posted this:

Napa Valley where a modest small home cost in excess of $1M, and then the tragedy of having to flee Napa to go to a vacation home near the coast almost brought me to tears wondering how someone could endure such suffering.”

One, the facts are wrong. Two, at what point are you not entitled to empathy from others? Why attack someone else in their time of difficulty?

Here’s who Derek Moore is:

He’s a father of two children, Claire and Jack. He’s married to a wonderful woman named December. He doesn’t have a vacation home. In 2017 he took his family to their friend’s vacation home (not on a beach) to protect the family, and then he returned to the fire zone to report on the fire.

His wife December works as a court reporter. For months, because of COVID-19, it means each working day she closes herself in her bedroom and uses a steno machine to capture the verbatim court record she is responsible for producing, and she participates via Zoom call. Neither Derek nor her children can interrupt her as the court proceedings she works are often confidential.

Derek worked as a full-time reporter for years. But he gave it up a few years ago to write freelance articles and pursue his passion, running. Meet Derek Moore, Napa High School cross country coach. This past summer Derek had more high school kids training than ever before because the kids need an escape. They need camaraderie. But now, with flames on the ground and acrid smoke in the air, their season is postponed until winter. And with remote learning, they’re back in their homes going to school on Zoom.

Derek applied for unemployment for the modest stipend he gets working at Napa High and for the freelance work that has dried up during COVID-19 because many publishers aren’t commissioning new pieces. Some magazines and newspapers are out of business. When the government was giving an extra $600 a week, he said it made it possible to get through the summer. But that ended July 31. California doesn’t recognize the freelance income he received, which means he now only gets unemployment based on the Napa High contract. That translates to $100 a week.

Nevertheless, school started this week and Claire and Jack were working in one room, with December in another. Derek borrowed a generator from a neighbor, just in case the heat caused rolling blackouts, or the fires took transmission lines and cut power.

Friday, the power in their home went out. The cause?

“PG&E said a bird hit a power line and knocked out power to 2,500 people,” Derek told me Saturday morning on a call. “So I ended up firing up the generator that I borrowed from Ernie and plugged in the WIFI router.“

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The home of Derek and December Moore in Napa, California. The generator was borrowed from a neighbor and keeps the family connected to school and work.

Derek Moore

Derek described it as “another level of absurd” in a year full of challenges. Still, the family is safe. They haven’t yet had to flee.

Friday afternoon I received another message. It was an email from my father to me and my siblings: He lives in Carmel Valley, a spot as beautiful as Napa Valley:

“We could well have to depart our Village today,” he wrote.

“Two fires are merging here and if successful..we have to go and find a refuge..perhaps Carmel Middle School or a motel.

“This situation has been going for 10 days and probably another three.

“It would be so sad, but there is no option if the brave 1,000 firefighters cannot get it under control.

“Will try to keep you informed..but please forgive if we cannot get to you on email for a while.

“Love, Dad

He said, “I thought you might call,” when I reached him moments after reading his message. He was getting ready to evacuate if needed; the fire was two miles away. I told him to go. He opted to wait.

As of Saturday morning the fires — one by Salinas, one east of Carmel Valley — had not yet merged. Dad was still at home with his wife. Dad will be 87 in a few months.

Napa and Carmel are amazing places to live. But it doesn’t eliminate pain or difficulty from the lives of those who live there. Most don’t live in million-dollar homes. Most are worried about parents and children.

“I’ve always wondered where would people set the limit,” Derek said. “Are you entitled to your suffering? Is there a cutoff where you don’t feel empathy for someone because of where they live?” Or perhaps their circumstances?

Napa came off the watch list Saturday, but not for fires; for COVID-19. It means if it can stay off the watch list for 14 days then businesses can reopen and the kids have a shot at returning to school in person.

My father was in good spirits Saturday morning. I asked if the newspaper he receives was delivered to his house Saturday. He said it was. That’s a level of comfort. Of normalcy.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that any bit of empathy — for any and everyone — will go a long way to helping us each find a measure of peace.

Addendum: By Saturday night my father evacuated to a hotel. We continue to pray for firefighters and all who are suffering the effects of the fires.