As devastation revisits Santa Rosa, student journalists find purpose

Anne Belden was feeling down in the fall of 2017, coming back from a sabbatical to advise the Santa Rosa Junior College newspaper, with a class full of students she had never met.

When the Tubbs Fire ambushed the city in early October, torching more than 36,000 acres, killing 22 people and forcing thousands to flee, she would get to know the young journalists very quickly, and they would change her life.

“I texted my Oak Leaf students (after the fires reached Santa Rosa) and eight of them showed up,” Belden remembers. “Half those students had been evacuated. They worked around the clock for two weeks. They’d have to go to jobs, and some were sleeping in different places every night. It was just an incredible crew and an inspiring moment.”

With three devastating fire seasons in the past four years, Santa Rosa has been forced to adapt to a new reality of wildfire. The changes are reflected in property maintenance, disaster planning and close attention to Nixle alerts. And they can be seen in the Santa Rosa Junior College’s news organization, the Oak Leaf, which has expanded from an emphasis on hyper-local campus news to include the who, what, when, where, why and how of covering a blaze as it tears through their community yet again.

“It’s almost like fire college,” says James Wyatt, a former Oak Leaf editor now studying journalism at San Francisco State University. “You’re going to learn how to report on a fire at that college.”

San Rosa Junior College student Nick Vides, editor of the Oak Leaf newspaper, interviews Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick in 2020.

San Rosa Junior College student Nick Vides, editor of the Oak Leaf newspaper, interviews Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick in 2020.

Courtesy Nick Vides

The news team’s latest challenge came Sunday night and early Monday morning, Sept. 27-28, when the Glass Fire destroyed homes in Santa Rosa’s Skyhawk neighborhood and threatened the retirement community of Oakmont.

Oak Leaf editor-in-chief Nick Vides was in Fairfield, where he planned to stay overnight, when he received a text from Belden. “She said, ‘It’s bad,’” he recalls. “So I just booked it, all the way back, all the way to (Highway) 101.”

School was technically not in session because of the fires, but at least seven of the program’s 18 students went to work.

Photos and live broadcasts started showing up in the 1 a.m. hour on the Oak Leaf’s social media feeds, before most media competitors were even on the scene in the Skyhawk area. Vides and Belden went back and forth from Mountain Hawk Drive, where several homes were ablaze, to Oakmont, posting updates via YouTube, Instagram and Facebook Live along the way. Their dramatic footage includes a retreat on Melita Road heading toward Highway 12 with flames on both sides.

By Tuesday, there were 60 photos on the Oak Leaf site from seven student journalists. They documented the Glass Fire’s devastation throughout Sonoma County with photos from Vides, Jonathan Bigall, Michael Combs, Aryk Copley, Priscilla Navas, Emma Molloy and Peyton Krzyzek.

Belden says the beginning of the semester is always a crash course in fire coverage, made more difficult this year because of the pandemic. She still hadn’t met some of her students in person when the fire broke out.

Students are told to report in groups, and turn back at any sign of danger.

“I want to do this with students, but we need to do it safely,” Belden says. “No. 1 rule is that everyone has to make it home.”

The students say what they lack in reporting experience they make up for with hometown knowledge.

“The advantages are tenfold. You’re in my backyard,” Vides says. “These major media outlets swarming the area, they don’t know the backroads like we do. If I see a roadblock, I know two other roads to safely get to that same place to get our photo and get out.”

Abraham Fuentes, a journalist for the Oak Leaf newspaper at Santa Rosa Junior College, covers the Kincade Fire in 2019.

Abraham Fuentes, a journalist for the Oak Leaf newspaper at Santa Rosa Junior College, covers the Kincade Fire in 2019.

Courtesy Anne Belden

The group has swept community college awards for its fire coverage and been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists and the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Oak Leaf photos and videos have been picked up by CNN and NBC Nightly News, Belden says. A former Oak Leaf editor, Dakota McGranahan, was the only community college student of five honored with a Columbia Journalism School fellowship for a 2018 SPJ conference in Baltimore.

Vides credits the Santa Rosa Junior College faculty, which includes several professors with news coverage backgrounds, including Brian Antonson, who worked as a video journalist for CNN and CBS News.

Reminders of the scrappiness of Oak Leaf’s operation are everywhere, including their handmade press credentials.

“We had these crappy press passes we laminated ourselves for sporting events on campus,” Belden says. “Suddenly (in 2017) they were using them and gaining access to Coffey Park and Fountaingrove and all these areas after those fires.”

Belden says those 2017 fires were an epiphany for her as an instructor. One student saw a need and made his beat dispelling false social media information, reporting with photographic proof that a grocery store rumored to be destroyed was still standing.

And everyone learned the toughest lessons for young journalists, including how to approach interview subjects and how to stand your ground with officials who don’t recognize a journalist’s rights.

“They gained more experience and knowledge in two weeks than I could teach them in two years,” Belden says.

Former Oak Leaf editor James Wyatt says he wasn’t sure what he’d do with his life before the Tubbs Fire. His father is a police officer and his mother is a nurse. While Wyatt wanted to follow their leads and be of service, he knew those careers weren’t for him.

Covering the heartbreak and heroism of his neighbors in 2017, he found clarity. “That was my community. Just a half mile or mile down the road were houses that I grew up wandering around, and they had burnt down,” Wyatt says. “When the fire happened it literally changed everything. It put me in a go mode. It gave me purpose.”

Dakota McGranahan reports in the fire-ravaged Mark West Estates neighborhood in Santa Rosa in 2017.

Dakota McGranahan reports in the fire-ravaged Mark West Estates neighborhood in Santa Rosa in 2017.

Courtesy Anne Belden

Wyatt is now in his last semester at San Francisco State. His journalism units are completed, and he’s thinking about a future covering news. But when he heard the fires had returned last Sunday night, he decided to cover the story for the San Francisco State newspaper Golden Gate Xpress.

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