A Song of East Coast Media Bias and Fire

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes:

My wife and I live in Central Oregon (Bend) which, along with WA, ID, MT, CA and other states, is susceptible this time of year to deadly and destructive wildfires, which relates to drought, loss of dwellings, climate change, water shortage, destruction of power lines, unhealthy air, and more.

This week my wife and I spent three days indoors with the windows closed due to a high particle count in the air from Class 5 wildfire conditions in OR and WA. We don’t expect you to write daily columns about the subject, but perhaps you could post useful websites for your readers who want to check on the current status of wildfires and air quality. I’m aware that The Atlantic has world-wide subscribers with varied interests, but I share the thought nevertheless.

By the way, Notes has promise! It’s a great idea. I’ll continue checking you out on a daily basis when possible.

Thanks! First, to answer our reader’s inquiry. For air quality, the E.P.A. offers real-time tracking at airnow.gov. Another website that comes to mind is the National Interagency Fire Center, which releases a report on wildfires burning nationwide daily. It’s invaluable for journalists, but I admit its practical applications for everyday use might be limited. (If you’re aware of other sites that might be useful, let us know and I’ll add them below.)

I also wanted to take a moment to talk about geographic bias in American journalism. This is something I’ve often thought about as a native Nevadan.

I grew up in the forests near Reno that straddle the Sierra Nevada mountains and the California-Nevada border. It made for a great childhood, but the knowledge that our home and neighborhood could go up in flames with little warning bracketed our lives. Most of my journalistic colleagues on the East Coast never spent their summer weekends trimming tree branches or raking pine needles away from their house, just in case. Many of them never grew up with boxes of family heirlooms by the front door in case a nearby blaze jumped the highway.

The Caughlin Fire burns in the Reno foothills in 2011. (Alexander Hoon / NOAA)

This kind of fear is not unique to the rural West, of course. Midwesterners could say the same thing about the terror of hearing a tornado siren at school. Gulf Coast residents could tell stories about rushing to board up their windows because a hurricane changed course at the last minute. Stories like these and like mine can be found in major national newsrooms.

But the fact remains that an overwhelming number of national media outlets, especially newer ones, are concentrated in New York City or Washington, D.C. (I suspect many of their employees also hail from the urban Northeast, but I have no numbers to back that up.)

Coverage of Western affairs suffers accordingly. Journalists constantly refer to it as “California's drought,” even though Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, and Alaska are also suffering. For some inexplicable reason, hundreds of stories have been written about how much water goes into almonds. Op-ed columnists tsk-tsk Californians for their wasteful ways and ignore the crisis in other states. Rare is the reporting about the ecological damage to our national forests, or the rise in wildfires, or the role of climate change.

When I wrote about the wildfires last weekend, I tried to make up for lost ground by highlighting some of these issues. Stay tuned to Notes. Update: A reader in Eugene, Oregon, recommends InciWeb, the Incident Information System. A screenshot from today at 2:20pm PST: