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Los Angeles' TV Station Fire

Mount Wilson
Mount Wilson
UCLA Dept. of Physics & Astronomy

The jury will always be out on whether a crashing tree makes noise in an unpopulated forest, but there's never any doubt about whether fires burn trees when no one sees it happening. Despite the absence of traditional wall-to-wall TV coverage of the massive Station Fire, it's been a little hard to miss -- especially for the mountain and foothill dwellers in its path. Still, on Saturday afternoon television viewers surfed in vain for live coverage. (Eventually they may have stumbled upon CNN's lengthy report.) That day's L.A. Observed carried an email from a reader complaining that "It's 5 pm on Saturday, the biggest fire in year[s] is in the backyards of thousands of homes from Lake View Terrace to Pasadena, and NOT ONE Los Angeles TV station is providing continuous coverage."

The reader enumerated exactly what was occupying the airwaves on this critical day: "A few minutes ago, KTTV popped in with a brief update after the Dodger game, then returns to Whacked Out Sports . . . KNBC: regular programming, some sort of taped feature show on hot cars at Mt. Pinos . . . KTLA: some show about warlocks and evil spirits." Another lonely voice in the burning wilderness has been L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who, according to the L.A. Times, complained that "There were a large number of evacuations taking place, people and animals were in danger, and people had no information of where to go."

Elsewhere in the Times, writer Mary McNamara, who, with her family, was displaced from her La Crescenta home by the Station Fire, was puzzled by the blackout about her threatened neighborhood:  "If only Kate Gosselin lived in La Crescenta," McNamara ruminated. Earlier, Pat Morrison lamented the on-air void created by news channel KFWB's conversion to a conservative radio talk-show format.

The weekend media blackout was partly created by the collision of a

faltering economy and the rise of new media. Despite what television

stations are now saying about their damn-the-cost commitment to fire

coverage, there really is no reason for three stations to have

helicopters in the air the way they did during the great fires of the

1990s. And, of course, with the Internet and other communications

platforms, fewer and fewer people today rely on a model in a fire

slicker to tell them where the fire is. Let's face it, much of the

value of having a nighttime camera hovering over the Malibu fires, with

absolutely no commentary, was the sheer visual incandescence of that

voyeuristic experience. Before there were televised car chases, there

were televised wildfires.

Antonovich's scolding message had

"safety" implications -- how are people going to know to leave their

homes and where they should go if TV doesn't tell them? I don't know

about the supervisor, but if I lived near the fire zone, sitting in

front of a TV set waiting for someone to mention

whether my neighborhood is in the path of a fire is about the last way

I'd spend last Saturday. Besides radio and the Internet, there are our

safety, emergency and disaster agencies to heed -- and finally, there's

always that old fallback, common sense and a telephone.

The real

reason we need continual televised fire coverage is not for its

spectacle or to be told whether to stay or flee, but for Angelenos to

be aware that a great natural disaster is unfolding in their midst

and to be kept apprised of the lives of their fellow citizens with

homes near the fire. For the last few days opinion has see-sawed about

the fate of Mount Wilson's skyline of communications towers, and how

the city would talk to itself should those towers be overrun by flames. It looks as though, by one standard, the information blackout has

already begun.


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