October 2016

Excellence in Journalism award from Society of Professional Journalists.

Eight months after the Rim fire finally burned itself out, I stood at the edge of a steep drop-off near Yosemite National Park.  Amid the blackened trees stretching from mountain to mountaintop, I saw signs of rebirth:  Brilliant clumps of scarlet paintbrush; hillsides shimmering with silver lupine; turquoise Lazuli Buntings flitting among the scorched stands.

The burst of renewal that follows a fire inspired "Burn Notice," an Audubon feature.  The Society of Professional Journalists has just honored it with an Excellence in Journalism award for science, environment and health reporting.  Here's what the judges said:


 Deeply reported from the ashes of California’s wildfires, the piece sheds new light on an environmental issue of critical importance in the American West.




 "Burn Notice" challenges the conventional fear of fire.  While it acknowledges the destructive force, it focuses on fire's creative power by introducing the productive processes that begin in the heat of flames.  Bugs, Black-backed Woodpeckers and other wildlife are drawn to burned areas in the flush of fresh nutrients that rejuvenate the forest.  Fire restarts the natural cycle of evolution toward a mature old-growth stand. 




To report this story I followed Ryan Burnett and his Point Blue Conservation Science team to scorched forests throughout California and the West, camping at the edge of fire lines still billowing with smoke.  I trudged through ankle-deep ash as scientists monitored woodpeckers and a suite of species dependant on post-fire habitat.  In studying the scientific literature on the historical and ecological effects of wildland fire, I found the scientists well ahead of the forest management community in understanding the value – and the inevitability – of fire.  With climate change turning up the heat and fires increasingly frequent around the world, we need to learn how to live with this natural force, as essential to forests at sunshine and rain.   


I am deeply honored by this award and thank the SPJ and post-fire scientific communities.  I am especially grateful to Ryan Burnett.