COMMENTS: Fire Bugs

Few things are as eye-catching to the lens of a television news camera than an inferno. Last week's national headlines were led by a local blaze in a South Carolina furniture store. Now a local forest fire on the southern shores of Lake Tahoe in California's Sierra Nevada is the Story of the Day. Never mind free speech rulings from the Supreme Court or political assassinations in Baghdad, all three networks led with the blaze in El Dorado County.

The Lake Tahoe fire was spectacular, fanned by 35mph winds, destroying as many as 200 structures, but it was hardly catastrophic: "No one has reported any injuries," CBS' Bill Whitaker announced. Still, the fire that started on Sunday afternoon was hardly under control at the news hour. "Poor visibility from all the smoke has hampered water-dropping aircraft," NBC's George Lewis explained. "It is simply too dangerous to fly in this mountainous terrain." As ABC's Miguel Marquez (subscription required) walked through the now-ashen trees after the flames swept through, he observed that "the forest floor is still too hot to touch."

ABC and NBC sought to put this local news in a national context. NBC's Don Teague found that severe droughts in both western states and the southeast have placed 19 states--half the land area of the United States--at significant risk for wildfires. In the west, ABC's Brian Rooney pointed out, a lighter than usual winter snowfall has left the brush dry and "every year more houses are built on the edge of wild land" causing firefighting costs to increase.


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