Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Wildfires make editor just another mom

“He’s deploying to Eastern Washington as we speak.”

The news about my son came in a text message from my husband.

It was 4:30 on a Friday afternoon last month, an hour before we were supposed to meet at my son’s house for a birthday party for him and his wife.

The deployment was not unexpected. Our older son is a firefighter and for years has volunteered to fight wildfires in Eastern Washington. If anything, he was frustrated that he hadn’t been called sooner.

His party went on without him, with friends and loved ones agreeing to be happy for him that he finally got the call. The firefighter family, like the military family I’ve been part of for 32 years, is crazy that way.

But it doesn’t mean we don’t worry.

And in this case, there was good cause.

Within a day of his arrival on the Chelan Complex fire line, 40 homes were destroyed, 1,500 people were told to leave, the city of Chelan lost power, and the hospital was evacuated.

Then it got really bad.

As if tinder-dry vegetation and record-high heat weren’t challenging enough, next came the winds. Like a 50-mile-per-hour blowtorch, they blasted the fire up and down mountains, switching direction often enough to be dangerously unpredictable. Soon the nearby Okanagan Complex fire grew out of control, as well. We never knew for sure which fire our son’s team was on.

Those of us in the news business occasionally find ourselves on the receiving end of a breaking news story. It’s a humbling place.

Suddenly you’re like everybody else — wanting to know every detail, but having no control over the flow of information.

You check in — a lot — with news sources you trust. You scan reports on government websites. You curse the lack of the specifics in all of them. You trade intelligence with family members and friends who also are worrying.

Several days into that exercise came the heart-stopper.

I’d been at an evening social function and incommunicado for about an hour when I climbed back into my car.

As usual, before I started the car I reached for my cellphone and saw my own newspaper’s breaking news alert: “3 firefighters killed near Twisp.”

Breathe, I told myself. Breathe.

Directly below that text was a separate one from my husband, who knows my habits well: “Stevan is ok. It was not him.”

Breathing again, I drove straight home.

We spent the evening checking in with our daughter-in-law, notifying relatives and participating in the social media back-and-forth among firefighter families.

We had planned to leave the next morning for a long weekend in Canada, but I woke up with a nagging desire to stay close to home. I was no closer to my son there, but it felt like where I needed to be. Plus, I wanted to see our daughter-in-law in person.

I asked my husband, who twice led his Army unit fighting big wildfires, if he thought we should go to Chelan. There are firefighters to feed, I said, and I could peel potatoes. We could volunteer at a shelter.

We’ve got several days off. We could help.

Officials were chasing people out of the area, he reminded me. They and the Red Cross have people trained to handle these situations. The last person they needed up there was a firefighter’s mom.

It’s also the last person you’d want making news judgments about wildfire coverage. Journalists have training, as well, that comes into play in these situations. We are bound to excuse ourselves from coverage decisions when we become too close to a story.

When editors contacted me the next day asking if we should send a reporter to the fire lines, I told them I was not the person to ask.

“I'm pretty worried right now about my own kid who's right in the thick of it,” I wrote. “Last night was a hard one for the families here.

“The decision should be based on what we could add to the story for local readers.”

Knowing we’d have little access to South Sound firefighters, the editors chose instead to run wire service stories reporting from Eastern Washington. They assigned a story about local fire departments involved in the effort and their families. Later, we’d send a reporter to write about local soldiers fighting the fires.

My daughter-in-law, wise beyond her years, knew exactly what I needed when we saw her that day. Our son was between firefighting shifts at that moment, so she called him, told him to tell his mother he loved her and handed me the phone.

A dutiful husband and son, he did so. I told him I loved him, as well. Then he had to go.

Our son came home a week ago after 14 straight days fighting the wildfires. We are proud of him and thankful his crew was safe.

But we are just one of the thousands of families with loved ones fighting these horrific fires. Beyond them are thousands of aid workers serving these communities. And beyond them are thousands of families forced to evacuate their homes temporarily or who have lost them altogether.

I’m reminded by this experience to be mindful of the people we write about who unwittingly find themselves on the receiving end of a news story.

And I’m reminded that it’s much easier on the nerves to deliver the news than to be in the middle of it.