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Lost Audio, Lost Homes, Lost Lives

One of the worst fears of solo radio reporters in the field is recording interviews and sounds for a story only to come back to the studio to discover that sound was not recorded. I'll spare you details about why and how this can happen (operator error to equipment failure). But this past week as some people lost their homes and lives to the wildfires, I lost the ability to let them tell their stories.

I was near Dulzura shortly after 5 a.m. Monday, October 22 to cover the Harris Fire. I met with Julie Hutchinson with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection ( CAL FIRE ). She invited me to join her and about 50 other fire officials as they plotted their strategies for managing the fire. I was the only media person at this meeting which is not usually open to journalists. Reporters are briefed later. I recorded several interviews that explained the difficulties firefighters faced in battling the fire. Then I headed west on Highway 94 to Steele Canyon High School.

At the high school, I talked with many of the people that were among the first evacuated from the Harris fire. They had spent the night on cots in the gym. Many feared their homes would be lost. I recorded their worries, fears and thoughts. I talked with Red Cross volunteers, school officials, and other people now calling the gym their temporary home. I also captured sounds of the gusty winds. Later, I witnessed a town hall meeting with Howard Windsor, the CAL FIRE incident commander for the Harris fire. People sat in the bleachers using a wireless microphone to ask questions. I continued recording. I was given an opportunity for an interview with Windsor. We spent about 20 minutes talking about what would happen over the next few weeks, the problems in fighting this fire, and how CAL FIRE organizes to fight so many fires burning simultaneously. While we spoke, many of the people evacuated would break in to ask questions of Windsor. This too was recorded.

All the elements of telling the story: gusty winds (so prevalent during KPBS reporters' live reports from the field), fire officials, evacuated residents, sounds in the gym. Most important of these elements were the poignant stories I was bringing back to the studio. These elements would come together to give listeners a first-hand, on-scene account of the wildfires impact on southeast San Diego County and its residents. But, it was not to be. When I downloaded the audio, there was only silence. I was downhearted, almost physically sick. Those stories were not going to be heard (at least not the stories I had gathered). But other reporters would return to tell the stories of the people at Steele Canyon High School.

There was little time for me to mourn the loss of the audio. After all, there were still many miles to go and more stories to tell in a week that seemed like two weeks. Many people lost homes, pets, businesses and their lives. I only lost audio.

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