Media access to wildfires, disasters varies widely by state

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FILE - In this Aug. 8, 2018, file photo, a photographer takes pictures of a wildfire burning near a residential area in Lake Elsinore, Calif. Photographers have captured searing, intimate images of active and dangerous wildfires burning California, due in large part to a state law that guarantees press virtually unfettered access to disaster sites. Thats not the case everywhere as rules about media access vary by state, and even by government agency. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

SAN FRANCISCO – Journalists have captured searing, intimate images of active and dangerous wildfires burning in California, due in large part to a decades-old state law that guarantees press virtually unfettered access to disaster sites in evacuated areas that are off-limits to the public.

That's not the case everywhere as rules about media access vary by state, and even by government agency.

Wildfires are raging in several states in the western U.S., scorching an unprecedented amount of land, forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes and killing at least 23 people across Oregon, Washington and California. But the images and words the public sees vary greatly because of the level of access granted journalists.

Daniel Berlant, an assistant deputy director with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said beyond the law, California journalists are given free rein because fire officials want the public to understand and see what is at stake.

“During a natural disaster and during a wildfire, people are making decisions about their family and their own safety, and in many cases, people are going to follow our request for evacuations if they’re actually able to see how destructive the disaster is,” he said.

Some other states only allow journalists behind fire lines with escorts, while others rarely grant permission for reporters to get anywhere near an active wildfire, saying that safety is paramount.

New Mexico prohibits journalists from going into areas where wildfires actively are burning, said Wendy Mason, a former television journalist who is now spokeswoman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division. She said journalists could face penalties from local sheriffs offices.

“You certainly would get a good talking to and immediately moved out of the area,” she said.