Law enforcement restricts media wildfire coverage

By Dan Elliott

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, June 20 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

With the current fire, "They're robbing the victims of the chance to tell their story," Bunch said. "The larger public isn't being able to fully appreciate the size of the fire and the size of the tragedy because the story isn't being told."

Fire management teams routinely try to get journalists safe access to fires to get the news out, said Mike Ferris, a public information officer for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

"Generally, I'll do everything I can to get you access to get your story," he said.

Rules for media access vary from state to state and even from wildfire to wildfire. In California, state law allows news organizations virtually unfettered access to fires. Other states leave the decisions up to the agency responsible for the land involved.

In Arizona, the incident commander in charge of the firefighting effort has the final say. News personnel must have an escort. Utah and Idaho have no laws restricting or guaranteeing access but officials usually work with news organizations.

In Colorado, state law puts the county sheriff in charge of fires on state and private land in unincorporated areas if the fire exceeds the capacity of a single fire department, officials said.

If a Colorado sheriff asks the National Interagency Fire Center to dispatch an incident management team to a fire, the sheriff decides what responsibilities to delegate to the team. In Larimer County's case, Sheriff Smith retained responsibility over media access.

The fire has destroyed at least 189 homes — the worst wildfire property destruction in Colorado history — and blackened 100 square miles since it was sparked by lightning June 9.

In one incident, the sheriff's department withheld for 24 hours a video recording, made by a fire official inside the evacuation zone using an NBC News camera and tape. NBC News producer Jack Chesnutt said he thought he would get the tape back immediately to share with other news outlets.

Christensen, the sheriff's executive officer, said the department always intended to show the video to evacuated residents before returning it.

"These are not the conditions that I thought we had agreed to when we handed them the camera," Chesnutt said. He called the High Park Fire coverage restrictions "unprecedented."

Evacuated residents expressed mixed feelings about the media, saying they want their privacy respected but also want news coverage of the fire and its aftermath.

"I have gotten more information, and I'm sure some of it is misinformation, through the media than I have through the sheriff and through the authorities," said Jeff Corum, whose home was destroyed.

But, he added, "there's really not any of us that want to sit around and talk" about losses. "We're private people, so it's nobody's (expletive) business, pardon my language."

Tom Knab, who was evacuated but has been told his house is still standing, expressed wariness about the restrictions. But he said he would be angry if his house and been destroyed and a news crew got to see it before he did.

"This is a local community. This isn't the White House burning," Knab said.

Associated Press Writers Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho, Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Ariz., Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nev., contributed to this report.

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