Reporting on Wildfires

class="MsoNormal">The Blue Bell wildfire is the first wildfire of the 2013 season I’ve had to cover. Last year, wildfires popped up early in the season. I’m fairly certain I covered two or three by June 2012.

By all accounts the Blue Bell wildfire was not a massive wildfire. It only grew up to about 15-25 acres in size.

Law enforcement treated it like it was a massive fire, though. More than 9,000 alerts were sent out to residents’ phones telling them to either prepare to evacuate – or to evacuate immediately.

Most people were glad the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department overreacted, especially after what happened during the Lower North Fork fire last year.

Wildfires are nothing to mess with. Last year, it seemed like I was covering one almost every single day. As a reporter, they’re difficult to cover – because you have to move quickly.

What I mean by that is when a fire breaks out you have to try and get there immediately. If you’re 30 minutes late, you likely won’t get good access to the fire scene. Law enforcement in Colorado likes to block off roads quickly – not allowing anyone in to the fire area.

On Monday, Sully and I got to Evergreen quickly to cover the Blue Bell fire. We actually got there before most fire trucks did.

We pulled over to the side of the road when we saw a family packing up their belongings. It was clear they had been told to evacuate.

We spent only ten minutes with them and shot as much as we could. Then we moved up to the blockade to grab more video.

We spent a few more minutes at the blockade before rushing down the hill to get to our 4pm live shot at Evergreen High School.

During wildfires, Reporters and Photojournalists have to manage their time wisely.

 Photo from covering the High Park Fire in 2012

Photo from covering the High Park Fire in 2012

Covering Breaking News

This past year has been crazy in terms of breaking news. I’ve had the opportunity to cover most of the major breaking news stories in Colorado and around the country over the last 12 months. Some of them include: The Aurora Theater Shooting, Jessica Ridgeway’s Abduction and Murder, all of the major Wildfires in Colorado, the Boston Marathon Bombings, President Obama’s Inauguration, the Explosion in West, Texas and many more. 


All of the stories were different. I remember certain things from each one. From the Aurora Theater Shooting, I’ll never forget the look of horror on everyone’s faces. From the Jessica Ridgeway story, I’ll never forget how an entire community came together to help search for the little girl – and how they all came together to say goodbye during her memorial service.

With the wildfires, I’ll never forget the smell that plagued the mountain communities after they ignited in flames.  That smoky, dry scent sticks with you for months.

In Washington DC, I won’t forget the happiness most people felt when they attended the President’s second inauguration.

In Boston, the one thing that stuck out was the level of fear most people felt the day after the explosion. People were wondering whether their city was riddled with more explosive devices.

Then, in West, Texas – there was a sense of shock. People in the tiny town of West were startled by the explosion and how it leveled most of their community.

I put together a compilation of some of the breaking stories I’ve covered over the last year:

Tornado Chasing in Holyoke

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Anyone who has ever chased a storm will tell you, ‘it’s all about luck’. You can never pinpoint where a tornado will pop up, you just have to be in the right place at the right time.

Of course, technology has made it possible for us to lock in to a certain area that’s riddled with activity, but Mother Nature is a beast – and her force can move faster than any computer.

My producers dispatched me to the eastern plains on Monday. Meteorologist Marty Coniglio suggested Photojournalist Andy Buck and I head to Burlington, near the Colorado/Kansas border.  He said the radar had picked up a bunch of activity out there and it would like stay throughout the evening.

Marty also suggested we not chase after any storm, because the cells were moving too fast. He said if we were lucky we would run in to something.

We took his advice and made the three-hour trek to Burlington. By the time we arrived at 6pm, a major storm had just pushed its way north. We ignored it and started interviewing people for our story.

Halfway through the first interview Andy and I received an e-mail from our 10pm Producer Will. He said a tornado had just touched down at Bonny Reservoir, about 20 minutes north of us. No damage was reported.

Andy and I discussed going north but figured our best bet was to stay where we were.

After our story aired at 10pm and we knocked down the satellite truck, Andy and I retired to the nearby Best Western Hotel in Burlington.

As usual, I couldn’t fall asleep – so I browsed through my e-mail. One viewer wrote, “Tornado swept through Holyoke tonight, a plane flipped over and there’s a lot of damage”.

I e-mailed our newsroom letting everyone know Andy I could shoot up there in the morning if the weather wasn’t too severe in Burlington. Our Assignment Desk liked that idea.

When we woke up, the weather wasn’t too bad in Burlington, so we loaded up the satellite truck and drove up north. The drive was windy, rugged and rigorous – but we arrived in Holyoke in an hour and a half.

We didn’t expect the damage to be as bad as it was. When we drove in to town on Highway 385 we saw a dozen electrical poles snapped in half like tooth picks. Further up, a tractor-trailer was lying belly up on the side of the road.

Once we arrived in town, we drove to the airport. That’s where we saw a plane flipped upside down near a damaged hangar. Up the road from the airport, a brand new pole shed had been torn apart.

The Sheriff in Phillips County told me the tornado likely originated near the shed.

Several people witnessed the funnel form and then touch down on the ground. They said it was a good size, but only lasted a short while.

During that time, the tornado was able to do enough damage to set some folks back thousands of dollars.

Luckily, no one was seriously hurt by the tornado.  However, had it formed less than a quarter mile away, two-dozen trailer homes would have been in its path. Had the tornado formed near them, I’m sure we would have had to report on some serious injuries – if not fatalities.

The last time someone died in a tornado in Holyoke was more than 50 years ago. Two people died on June 27, 1960.

I don’t know much about the victims from the 1960 storm, but I do know two vehicles were thrown more than a quarter of a mile.

Tornados are fierce, fast and furious. They’re not a force to be reckoned with.

People in Holyoke know that.

The Sheriff said it will take a while to rebuild from the damage caused by Monday’s twister, but he’s confident the entire town will come together to help out.

That’s the beauty of small towns.

My opinion doesn't matter...

At least once a week a viewer will ask me how I feel about an issue I reported on. I can understand their curiosity since I report on a lot of controversial issues.

Most of the time they want to know how I feel about something. For instance, three people asked me about the marriage equality story from Monday night.

I give them the same response I give anyone who asks me about any topic: I don’t have an opinion on it.

I’m not trying to be rude. It’s just true. I cut myself off from having an opinion on a lot of topics.

When it comes to politics, I vote right down the middle. If you look at my voting record you’ll find I’ve voted for as many Democrats as I have Republicans.

I vote for politicians based on their beliefs, not their parties’ beliefs.

Now, if you want to ask me about my favorite TV shows or what I thought about a certain movie I would certainly give you a more detailed answer :-)

KT

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Back Country Roads at Night...

I've driven down a lot of Colorado's back country roads at night. Up until recently I never thought about what would happen if my vehicle broke down while driving down said roads.

I mean, I could call AAA. But a lot of the times, there's no cell signal on the back roads. For instance, I was driving east along Highway 94 south of Limon recently when my cell phone signal went out. I drove on the road for a good 45 minutes without passing anyone.

In a perfect world, someone would drive by and stop if they saw my vehicle broken down. But let's be honest... the reality of that happening on some of these roads is slim to none. 

What got me thinking about this... is an experience I had earlier in the day. While driving down I-25 to Colorado Springs my news vehicle died. I was stuck on the side of the road for two hours.

I've decided to bring an extra bag with me, full of extra clothes, snacks and water -- just in case my vehicle has issues in the future. Hopefully I'll never have to use it.

Highway 94

Small Town USA

I really enjoy living in Denver. A lot. It’s a nifty city and I love my section of town: Capitol Hill.


But… when it comes to work, I’d much rather be reporting from a small town somewhere in the mountains, the eastern plains, northern/southern Colorado, or the Western slope.

I grew up in a small town and I absolutely love small town stories. In fact, my favorite stories at 9NEWS come from small towns.

I always tell people, “My favorite days at work are when I’m 2+ hours away from the newsroom”. Don’t get me wrong, the newsroom is comfy and all – but I love working out of a small town diner.

I was in Creede, CO (San Luis Valley area) this past week and had lunch at a tiny little mom and pop diner. I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and a side salad. You know what? It was the best grilled cheese sandwich and side salad I’ve had in a long time. Small town diners add a special ingredient to their food: love.

One of the things I love about 9NEWS is that it truly cares about covering small town news. When we say we’re ‘Everywhere’ we really mean it. I have a map on my desk of all the places I’ve reported from in Colorado – and it’s almost completely full.

Rarely do my producers and managers shoot down a story in a small town. If they don’t give me permission to do the story that day, they tell me I can go another day.

Today, I shot a really neat story in the Southern Colorado town of La Veta. It will air Sunday night on 9NEWS at 10pm during the Storytellers segment.

I added some pictures of the small town I grew up in to this blog post. Did you grow up in a small town? Tell me about it below:

A discussion on the future of TV news

A few months ago I was asked if I would participate in a media summit to discuss the future of television news. The media summit is held each year at my alma mater, Oswego State University in New York State. Without hesitation, I said ‘Yes’. I love my college and I love TV News, so the decision was pretty simple.

For the better part of a year the school has been working tirelessly to make sure the summit would go off without a hitch. Professors, students and donors put a lot of effort in to creating a spectacular show for the campus and its neighboring communities.

The summit was held this past Wednesday. It was moderated by former NBC Nightly News and Today Show anchor Garrick Utley. Garrick was also the moderator of ‘Meet the Press’ for a time and later served as a Foreign Correspondent for ABC News and CNN. He’s now a professor at Oswego State, based out of Manhattan.

Participating in the panel were former WSTM-TV Anchor Jackie Robinson, Dennis Mueller, who is a documentary filmmaker from Vermont, a Political Analyst from Washington DC and myself.

I had never met Garrick, Dennis or the Political Analyst (I believe his name was Edward). However, I did grow up watching Jackie Robinson on TV. Jackie worked at WSTM-TV for the better part of 30 years. She would always sign off with her signature phrase, “Goooooooood Night Central New York!”. 

I worked in Syracuse TV for three years at the #1 rated station WSYR-TV NewsChannel 9 (from 2006-2009). WSTM and WSYR were the two big stations in town.  Despite having spent a few years in Syracuse, I never had the chance to meet Jackie Robinson. 

“It took you leaving and going to Denver and coming back to visit for us to meet,” Jackie said to me with a chuckle. 

Jackie recently retired from WSTM-TV. After talking with her extensively that afternoon – I could tell she missed working in a newsroom.

Jackie and I talked about how TV News in Syracuse has transformed dramatically over the last couple of years. She said the transformation at her old station happened quickly. The transformation at WSYR-TV, where I worked, was much slower and less noticeable.

I was fortunate to have started working there at the time I did. Syracuse TV News icons Nancy Duffy and Mike Price were still reporters when I joined the team back in 2006. I grew up watching both of them, just like I did with Jackie. Nancy was the first female TV News Reporter in Syracuse. Mike was considered the ‘Good News’ guy and did feature stories every day. I always thought he had the sweetest gig at the station.

Partway through my first year at WSYR-TV Nancy fell ill. Months later, she passed away. About a year and a half after Nancy’s death, Mike Price retired and left the station after more than 35 years on the air.

That was the old NewsChannel 9. The new NewsChannel 9 looks a lot different, but still has a taste of the classic NC9 – which I love. WSYR still has its main anchors as well as other notable Syracuse TV journalists. 
More than a year ago the station made the HD transition and debuted a new set, graphics package and logo. The product is sharp and looks phenomenal on television. Syracuse is considered a medium market, but WSYR puts on a show that would make it comparable to a lot of large market TV stations I’ve seen. 
WSYR has been fortunate to maintain the quality it has had for the last 20+ years. I’ve never worked for WSTM, so I can’t speak too much about the internal changes there. From what I’ve seen on TV, there are a lot of noticeable differences though. 

At the media summit, Jackie and I talked about the WSTM I remembered from college: the WSTM with the ‘Night Team’ open, the black and yellow graphics package – and the team of reporters that would make any TV station jealous. I remember watching Jeff Glor, Dan Kloeffler, AJ Lagoe, Anthony Adornato and the rest of the team every night. Jeff and Dan have been very successful and have moved on to network positions at both CBS and ABC. Jackie smiled when I brought up their names and told me a few stories about that era at her former station.

I’ve seen changes at every station I’ve worked at (WWNY/WSYR/KUSA). Jackie had only worked at WSTM, but she’s seen her fair share of changes over the last 30 years. 
Along with the other two panelists, we talked about those changes – and discussed the future of the television news industry. One of the highlights of the discussion was about the role of a reporter now a day.

Garrick told the audience when he was a correspondent he would travel around with a photographer, audio person and some times a separate editor. He then pointed out that as a reporter, I play the role of a correspondent, audio person, photographer, editor – and in some instances, my own live shot engineer.

“He walks around with a book bag and does it all as a one-man-band,” Garrick told the crowd.

He asked me to talk about my job for a bit. 

“If you’re doing all of these jobs, what do you consider yourself? A Reporter, a photographer, or an editor?” he asked.

“I consider myself a journalist,” I replied.

My job is nothing new. For the last 6 years, TV stations across the country have been hiring more ‘Backpack Journalists’. A Backpack Journalist is a Reporter who does all of the work by his or herself, just like I do.

Four years ago the industry-wide talk was ‘Every reporter is going to become a one-man-band’. I don’t think that’s true anymore. There will always be a need for reporter/photographer teams; more so than one-person-bands or backpack journalists.

In a perfect world, I wish TV stations would only hire Backpack Journalists if they were really good at being Backpack Journalists. KUSA has done a great job at accomplishing that task. Our Backpack Journalists are some of the best Storytellers in the country. We jokingly say, ‘Put our work up against most two-person crews and you’ll be surprised at how good our stuff looks over theirs’.

That said, I warned the students at the summit, “If you think you’re going to graduate and get a job as a Reporter who works with a photographer right out of college, you’re living in a different era’.

Truth is, in one way or another every journalist has to have multi-media skills in the world we live in now. It’s important for Reporters to learn how to shoot and edit. Not only does it make them more valuable, but it also provides them with job security.

A big thing I stressed was the importance of social media. I told them I put as much effort in to social media as I put in to my stories each night. Viewership on TV isn’t what it used to be. More and more people are getting their news online, especially over social media websites.

Facebook and Twitter have become huge tools when it comes to promoting and showcasing stories. I recently started a Pinterest page and have been putting a lot of effort in to that as well. 

For the most part, discussions about the future of television news have only popped up when discussing it with my friends who work in the biz. I’m so grateful Oswego decided to focus this year’s media summit on the subject. I’m not sure how many students showed up, but I can tell you – you couldn’t find an empty seat in the auditorium where the summit was held. Some folks said there were more than 800 people in attendance; most of them were students. I’m glad they got a chance to hear the discussion.

My 3 year anniversary at 9news

Today marks my three-year anniversary at 9NEWS/K*USA-TV. It’s hard to sum up how much fun I’ve had in the last three years, because it would be too difficult to do that in one post. 

In the last three years I’ve only had six bad days at work, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t too bad. 

Every night when I leave the station I always leave with a smile on my face, knowing I’m at the place I’ve always wanted to be.
I was a senior in High School interning at WKTV in Utica, New York (my hometown market), when I was first introduced to K*USA. A Reporter I shadowed, Aaron Keller, told me “If you want to see good reporting check out KARE in Minneapolis and K*USA in Denver. Their Reporters aren’t ‘Reporters’…they’re Storytellers,”.

The rest is history.

In the last three years I’ve traveled about 70% of Colorado telling hundreds of untold stories. It’s been an absolute pleasure!

The little stories mean just as much to me as the big stories. However, the big ones certainly stick out. 
I’ll never forget the Deer Creek Middle School shooting. It was one of my first big assignments at 9NEWS. The fear I saw in parents’ eyes that day will stick with me for the rest of my life… Then there are the deadly wildfires that burned across Colorado… The conversations I had with homeowners and family members who lost their loved ones are some of the most compelling stories I’ve ever heard. And then, the Aurora Theater Shooting… I’ll never forget going back in to work at 1am and spending the next 8 hours witnessing one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.

Luckily, the number of ‘good news’ days have outweighed the bad news days. 

As I wrote earlier in the year, I signed a new three-year contract, which goes in today effect today. So if you like me, I’m sure you’ll be happy with that. If you don’t like me, I’m sorry to report you’re stuck with me for the next three years ;-)

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Covering the Aurora Theater Shooting

The last time I got emotional while covering a story was back on January 4th, 2012. I had just wrapped up an interview with the mother of Cole Rhodes. Earlier in the day Cole was killed in a car accident. During an interview, his mother told me how much of a special kid Cole was. When I walked out of their home I got in to my news vehicle. I sat there for a couple of minutes and my eyes filled with tears.

I deal with death and terrible things at work on a daily basis and I usually deal with them well. Once in a blue moon the situation will get the best of me and I can’t help but react the way a normal human being would react.

On Thursday, July 19th, two of my best friends from back home arrived in Denver to spend the weekend with me. I got out of work at 10pm that night and met up with them. I live close to 9news, so the three of us arrived at my house shortly after 10. 

My friend Jacquie had pretty bad jetlag so she passed out quickly. Phil and I stayed up a bit later to talk. By one o’clock in the morning I noticed a tweet from a competitor who mentioned the possibility of a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora. I called 9NEWS and our assignment editor said they had already been working on it.

About 45 minutes later I noticed more of my colleagues sending e-mails and tweets. I decided to e-mail one of our managers to see what our staffing was like. She responded asking me if I was able to come in. Five minutes later I was dressed and ready to go.

I arrived at the station around 2:15am. I stopped at a gas station first to grab red bull and vitamin water. I needed the energy.

When I stepped inside the newsroom, managers, producers, reporters and editors were already in full ‘breaking news’ mode. I had just received a text message from a source that told me what everyone now knows: 12 dead and more than 30 injured.

Initially I was dispatched to Denver Health to see if any victims were being transferred there. I didn’t see any activity so I returned to the station to find out what my next assignment was. My Assistant News Director Tim told me to go check out the movie theater with Photojournalist Chris Hansen. Chris had just arrived and loaded up his vehicle with camera gear and a LiveU (LiveU allows us to go live right from a backpack).

Chris and I left the station and headed south along I-25 and then jumped on to 225. On the way Chris tried calling his brother who was in town visiting him. His brother had mentioned the possibility of going to see the midnight showing of the new Batman movie, but he never confirmed anything with Chris. Chris tried calling his brother multiple times, but he never picked up. Eventually the desk attendant at the hotel Chris’s brother was staying at went to his room and knocked on his door. Chris’s brother woke up and called Chris back. Chris’s stress level immediately dropped.

About 15 minutes after that call happened Chris and I arrived at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora. Live trucks had already staked out their positions and reporters were surveying the area looking for interviews. 

At that point 9NEWS had already been on the air for about an hour. Chris started up our LiveU pack and we joined our colleagues on the air within a few minutes. Initially, I walked over to some people who had been sitting around and I started to interview them. One lady told me she had been worried about her friend who went to see the movie. For a brief time she hadn’t heard from her. Eventually she learned her friend was okay. I asked the man sitting next to her why he was there. He told me a man and his 12-year-old son passed by them on the way to the movie and he wanted to make sure they were okay. As we continued on we noticed more police vehicles showing up. 

We brought our viewers for a walk around the taped off area outside the theater and showed them what it looked like. We also ran in to more people. While interviewing one lady, she broke down in to tears and expressed her deepest condolences for the families involved.

Perhaps the most compelling conversation I had was with another lady who was watching the movie in Theater 8, next door to Theater 9 (where the shooting took place). She said she was supposed to see the movie in Theater 9 but her credit card was declined. By the time she got money, the movie in Theater 9 was sold out – so she ended up in Theater 8.About 15 minutes in to the movie she said a police officer entered the theater and pulled out a gun and told everyone to evacuate. At first she thought it was a joke, but soon realized how serious the situation was. As she walked out of the theater she looked in to the eyes of a teenage girl who had just been shot multiple times. She said the girl stared right at her as blood came pouring from her chest. “It’s a sight I’ll never forget,” she told me.

Chris and I had just finished filming a few interviews when NBC News asked if I would do a talk back interview with Matt Lauer on the Today Show. Around 8:15am (ET) I was on the air telling Matt what I had learned from moviegoers I talked to. My mom happened to be watching at home in New York and called me right after to make sure I was okay. I told her I was, even though I was emotionally drained.

An hour after I did a live shot for the Today Show I appeared on MSNBC with new information about the FBI’s investigation in to what happened at the movie theater. After that I did a few more live shots for 9NEWS and our sister-station KPNX in Phoenix, AZ.

Sometime around 9am TaRhonda Thomas arrived at the scene to relieve me. My mini-vacation was supposed to start 10pm Thursday, but I ended up working from 2am-9am the following morning. As much as I enjoy mini-vacations, I would’ve rather been at work covering a major story like this. Good journalism is about covering your community and covering it well. I love my community. There’s no other place I would have rather been that day.

When I returned to the station to drop off my gear I stopped by the newsroom to touch base with my producers. The newsroom was hectic. Everyone was busy. Busy and stressed. You could tell how much the story was getting to everyone.

As I walked down the long hallway from the newsroom to the parking lot I started to feel a tear develop in my eye. I kept my head down and continued to walk. I got to my car, opened the door, put my backpack in and hopped in the driver’s seat. I sat there for a couple of minutes, emotionally drained. I looked back on the last couple of hours and wondered, ‘what sort of person would do something like this?” I think that’s the question many people are now wondering…

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My news vehicle smells like red bull and beef jerkey

In the last two days I’ve logged more than 840 miles in my news vehicle. I was assigned a story in southwest Colorado, which aired Tuesday night – and then I picked up another story on my way back home on Wednesday (It will likely air Friday night).

I’m based out of our Denver newsroom and I live in Denver, but often times I’m dispatched to the far corners of Colorado to tell stories. My best days at work are days when I receive a phone call early in the morning (or the night before) asking me if I’d be able to drive 4+ hours to do a story. I never say no.

As much as I love Denver, I tend to have more fun telling stories in far off places – far away from the bright lights of the big city.

I’m not an investigative reporter or a political reporter – I’m a General Assignment Reporter who specializes in regional and feature reporting. That said: I cover quite a bit of spot news and breaking news too.

If you ask my colleagues, they’ll tell you it’s rare to see me reporting from Denver. More often than not, when stories are pitched in our editorial meetings I’ll try and grab the ones that’ll take me far away.

I grew up in a small town and I really love telling small town stories. I enjoy giving a voice to people who would otherwise remain voiceless because they think their story isn't big enough.

My favorite stories happen to be stories that bring me on adventures. I can’t begin to tell you how much fun my job truly is.

The hours are long, the stories can be difficult to produce, but all in all – it’s a BLAST! In the last three years at KUSA, I’ve never felt like I’ve actually worked a day.

Whenever I get up in the morning, I want the hours to pass by quickly so I can get to work. I usually get in to work 1-2 hours early and some nights I’ll stay an hour late.

While I was on assignment this week my work days started early in the morning (around 6am) and ended late at night (9pm). I worked each and every one of those hours with a huge smile on my face :-)

Working on the road is a tad bit difficult. Most times you don’t get a whole lot of time to relax or eat a full meal. Instead, you usually eat something you can munch on while driving – like beef jerkey.

As for those long, long hours – the only cure (at least for me) is to gulp down a few sugar free red bulls haha.

When I returned to Denver Wednesday night I got out of my news vehicle to unload my gear. When I returned to the vehicle there was a noticeable smell: Beef Jerkey and Red Bull. Some might say it smells disgusting, I think it smells like a fun assignment.

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