SANTA ROSA (AP) — While their families fled the flames, reporters and photographers ran to the front lines of devastating wildfires that tore through Northern California’s wine country, earning the Press Democrat of Santa Rosa a Pulitzer Prize in breaking news on Monday.
The terrifying speed with which the fires grew last October presented immense reporting challenges that the paper met by relying on sources collected over decades covering local issues in Sonoma and Napa counties, Executive Editor Catherine Barnett told The Associated Press.
“Because we all live here, we could call winery owners on their cell phones to find out what was burning and what wasn’t. We know these people,” Barnett said.
During the fires’ first hours, employees piled into the newsroom whether they were on duty or not, eager to help out on the fast-moving story, she said. In some cases, staffers brought in their kids and dogs while pulling all-nighters.
The blazes killed 44 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes over several weeks.
Barnett, who confessed to being a bit superstitious, wasn’t eager to watch Monday’s Pulitzer announcement, in case she jinxed the outcome.
“It was a bit of a heart-stopping moment” and the newsroom erupted in cheers when the paper was hailed as the winner, she said. “Even those of us who are not huggers made an exception today.”
They celebrated with sparkling wine — from local vineyards, of course.
Barnett vowed that the Press Democrat will continue to report on the fires’ aftermath, including the impact that rebuilding will have on what was already a tight housing market in the region. A series of stories in recent months has looked at failures in the public alert systems as the flames spread.
“I don’t think we know all the ways these fires are going to change us, but we will be writing about them,” she said.
The newspaper won a Pulitzer for spot news photography in 1997.