BIG FIRE. little experiment.

Sand Fire/coutesy of @mobawi24

At Southern California Public Radio, we’re accustomed to covering wildfires.

We have protective fire suits and masks at the ready. The cell phone numbers of regional firefighters are on speed dial. And phrases like ‘particulate matter,’ ‘containment levels,’ and ‘threatened structures’ are tossed around the newsroom on a regular basis.

So when a brush fire broke out last Friday afternoon near Santa Clarita, it didn’t raise many eyebrows. Initial reports indicated it was 20 acres. An hour later it was 1500. THAT did raise eyebrows. Fires don’t normally spread that quickly unless there are strong Santa Ana winds. Soon, ominous smoke clouds blocked out the sun in the L.A. basin and authorities asked thousands of people to flee their homes.

The skies above Pasadena turned orange from the glow of the fire/ Redmond Carolipio

We covered the story online and on air, and made sure our Fire Tracker tool was being pushed out on all platforms.

But an email late Friday night from KPCC’s Chief Engineer, Lance Harper, changed the game.

The lines that power our transmitter, which is responsible for carrying our broadcast signal, had burned to the ground. That meant the audience most in need of timely, urgent information would not be able to hear us over our terrestrial radio signal.

The question in the newsroom went from ‘what stories are we filing?’ to ‘how can we best serve the audience that’s in need of information?’

It may seem like a small and obvious pivot, but sometimes a small switch can lead to larger insights.

Data editor Chris Keller found a Facebook group that was dedicated to the Sand Fire. It had swelled to more than 10,000 members in two days. Digital producer Brianna Lee quickly jumped into the conversation, asking people what they needed to know and how we could be of assistance.

She was quickly overwhelmed with questions about specific neighborhoods, wind direction, and where people could donate resources. She didn’t have all the answers so she asked for help.

Paige Osburn, a producer for All Things Considered, started calling firefighters, posing the questions asked on Facebook. She relayed their answers to Brianna, who posted them on the Facebook page.

Round and round it went. Brianna plowed ahead, answering what she could, pointing to primary sources when she didn’t have the answers.

She served a valuable public service: providing timely, accurate information, preventing the flow of misinformation, and sharing ideas on ways to donate resources. The audience seemed appreciative that we were there, asking them what they needed instead of promoting our own work.

The experiment was small. All we did was alter our normal workflow. But it was significant in my view because we put the audience’s needs front and center. Everything else flowed from that.

The fire is no longer threatening homes and residents have returned to their homes. But Brianna has already put together a list of ways we can provide even more value the next time.