Judges praised “Ahead of the Fire,” spearheaded by The Arizona Republic, for taking a local issue and showing “why it was relevant to everyone in the country.”
The Knight Science Journalism Program’s second annual Victor K. McElheny Award for local and regional science journalism will honor an investigative series that explored the ongoing risk of deadly wildfires in the American West.
Spearheaded by The Arizona Republic, “Ahead of the Fire” shined a light on the hundreds of communities across the west that remain vulnerable — and unprepared — for wildfires like the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people in Paradise, California, and surrounding areas. Arizona Republic reporters Pamela Ren Larson and Dennis Wagner (now at USA Today) told a heart-wrenching story of how mismanaged emergency alert systems, evacuation constraints, and other factors created the conditions for a catastrophe in Paradise. Working with a team of developers and data journalists the USA Today Network, they identified more than 500 towns across the West that have even higher wildfire hazard potentials. The reporting was complemented with striking visuals from photojournalist Thomas Hawthorne and edited by Michael Squires, editor of the AZ Data Central team. Wagner, Hawthorne, and Squires were part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2018.
Judges lauded “Ahead of the Fire” for its rigorous reporting, compelling storytelling, and inventive data journalism. “They pushed the envelope,” said one panel member. “It took what was not only an Arizona issue and a California issue and explained why it was relevant to everyone in the country.” The public response to the reporting was immediate and sweeping. Fire agencies sought to explore the data, while regulators and other government entities sought to use it to inform their own decision-making.
“We are proud to honor this exceptional series from the Arizona Republic,” said Knight Science Journalism Program director Deborah Blum. “The stories not only illuminate an important issue but do so in a way that serves multiple smaller communities in the west. It’s a reminder that local and regional science journalists are still doing outstanding and important work, deserving not only of this award but of support and praise from all of us.”
In addition to “Ahead of the Fire,” judges honored three other outstanding entries as finalists: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s series “Turned Away,” about how the controversial practice of ambulance diversion continues to put lives at risk in the Midwest and beyond; “Arizona’s Next Water Crisis,” published by The Arizona Republic, which explored how a lack of regulation of water wells is threatening the livelihood of the state’s rural families and ecosystems; and The Boston Globe’s “At the Edge of a Warming World,” a multimedia feature on how climate change is reshaping life on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod.
Named after the Knight Science Journalism Program’s founding director, the Victor K. McElheny Award was established to honor outstanding coverage of science, public-health, technology, and environmental issues at the local and regional level. The winning team will receive a $5,000 prize.
The McElheny Award is made possible by generous support from Victor K. McElheny, Ruth McElheny, and the Rita Allen Foundation. The Knight Science Journalism Program extends special thanks to the award’s screeners and to the final panel of judges: James Boren, Fresno State Institute for Media & Public Trust; Ibby Caputo, Freelance; Alicia Chang, Associated Press; Bill Manny, Idaho Public Television; and Sabriya Rice, University of Georgia, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
2020 McElheny Award Winner:
Ahead of the Fire — The Arizona Republic, with the USA Today Network
(Dennis Wagner, Pamela Ren Larson, Thomas Hawthorne, and Michael Squires)
“Where will the West’s next deadly wildfire strike? The risks are everywhere”
“Wildfire risks: Look up every Western community”
“Amid winding mountain roads, a village pushes back its encroaching fire threat”
2020 McElheny Award Finalists:
Turned Away — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
(John Diedrich and Kevin Crowe)
“She collapsed next to the best stroke center. Her ambulance was turned away. It was policy. She died.”
“A Chicago baby died after she was turned away from the hospital. 30 years later, oversight of ambulance diversion in Illinois is flawed.”
“Some busy hospitals say they must turn away ambulances. Here’s how one state banned the practice.”
Arizona’s Next Water Crisis — The Arizona Republic
(Ian James, Rob O’Dell, and Mark Henle)
“Megafarms and deeper wells are draining the water beneath rural Arizona – quietly, irreversibly”
“It’s one of Arizona’s most precious rivers. Hundreds of new wells may leave it running dry.”
“These 7 industrial farm operations are draining Arizona’s aquifers, and no one knows exactly how much they’re taking”
At the Edge of a Warming World — The Boston Globe
(Nestor Ramos, Caitlin Healy, Shelby Lum, John Tlumacki, and Irfan Uraizee)
“At the Edge of a Warming World”
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