How to publish a newspaper in the midst of wildfire

  • The fonrt page of an issue of the Methow Valley News published during the largest wildfiresin Washington's history.

    Don Nelson
 

Rural weekly newspapers remain vital to their communities, and as a publisher-editor, it's my job to keep readers informed about and connected around the things that are important to them.

So how do you respond when nearly every means of doing that job is wiped out in one superheated burst of flame?

In mid-July, what would become the biggest wildfire in Washington state history roared through our remote mountain community and then vaulted beyond it, rampaging with such speed and ferocity that it stunned even the most seasoned firefighters. The only prudent thing to do was to get out of the way.

But more than 300 homes could not. Nor could the major electricity transmission line into the Methow Valley in northwestern Washington. We all knew the fire was advancing on the power line. But preparing for the expected isn't necessarily any easier than reacting to the unexpected. Only when the lights went out on a broiling Thursday afternoon did we begin to fully appreciate the implications, chief among them that everyone in the Methow Valley was without power for as long as it would take – eight days, it turns out – to reach and repair the downed line.

Every home and business in our tourism-dependent valley went dark unless it had a generator or was able to acquire one. But the fire's impacts went well beyond that.

The valley's major Internet service provider was out of commission, as was much of the local telephone service. No Internet meant no email for many people. And one of the valley's main cellphone service providers, which performs only marginally even on a good day, was basically unavailable.

It came down to this for the majority of residents along the 60-mile length of the valley: If you didn't have a Verizon cellphone (that's not a promo, it's just reality), you were cut off from the rest of the world.

That was my status on the Friday afternoon after the power went out. I stood in the street in front of my powerless Methow Valley News office, clutching my useless cellphone and wondering how in the world my staff and I could produce a newspaper with almost no functioning technology.

So I did the only thing I could. I left town, headed away from one of the biggest news stories in the valley's history and in my 40-year journalism career. The paper's designer/social media manager and I both decamped to the west side of the Cascades. With power and Internet access, we were able to use our laptops and cellphones the way Steve Jobs intended us to, and we kept our coverage alive remotely, with Facebook postings.

We both returned Sunday night, me with a loaned generator and a brand-new LG phone with a Verizon account. On Monday, I fired up the generator. We plugged in several computers, charged our cellphones and went to work.

We kept up a steady stream of Facebook posts filed from our cellphones using every scrap of dependable information we could obtain from official and on-the-scene sources. Within days, our informal community weekly had thousands of followers.

While the generator allowed us to use some of our computers, we were not able to network them, and we still didn't have Internet access, email or regular phone service. We moved stories, photos and page files around on flash drives – what journalists used to call a "sneaker net." I called it a low-tech/high-tech mash-up.

When we finished Tuesday night, one of our sales associates drove about 100 miles – much of it through the fire zone – to the Wenatchee World printing plant with the page files on flash drive. I held my breath until I knew he had arrived safely.

It was just an eight-page paper, but I think it meant a lot to the community to have it show up in mailboxes and at the newsstands. We printed extra copies and sold nearly every one.

Services including electricity gradually returned over the next few days, and we've been operating more normally since, though the Carlton Complex Fire is still going on as I write.

Someone asked me a few days ago if there was ever a moment when I thought we wouldn't publish during that dark week. "No," I said. "Our attitude, from the moment the power faded, was not whether we would make a newspaper, but how."

Don Nelson publishes the 111-year-old Methow Valley News, which has 2,700 subscribers, in Twisp, Washington.