In a recent piece for the New Yorker, “What It’s Like to Fight A Megafire,” former Knight Science Journalism (KSJ) Fellow Maura R. O’Connor took an intimate look at the deeply personal experiences of wildland firefighters. Even before she delved into the story, O’Connor knew that wildland firefighting was a tough job with long hours, dangerous working conditions, and little job security. But when she started training to become a firefighter herself — as part of the research for the magazine feature and a forthcoming book — she began to understand with new clarity the risks that were arising for wildland firefighters in this era of climate-change driven megafires. Across America, firefighters now pay a bigger price for an already risky job, with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal thoughts bringing many to a breaking point.
For months, O’Connor immersed herself in this world, and the result was a powerful tale of courage, compassion, and, most importantly, resiliency. KSJ spoke with O’Connor about the experience of covering this complex topic and the challenges of reporting on the sensitive subjects of trauma and mental health. (This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
KSJ@MIT: How did you first come across this story idea?
M. R. O’Connor: I was in Australia reporting on my second book about human navigation. And in the course of traveling in the northwest territories of Australia, I encountered a lot of fire and got really interested in the history of human ignited fires, which in the U.S. is called prescribed burning these days. In Australia, there’s this incredible history of aboriginal land management through ecological burning — many, many, many thousands of years of those traditions. And seeing fire on the ground in that way was totally bewildering to me. I had never encountered that before.
Eventually, as I got more interested in the subject matter, I started realizing that there’s a whole history here in the United States around wildfire management and human ignited fires, and it sort of encompasses areas that I already found interesting: anthropology, ecology, history, and Indigenous knowledge. So I just started thinking, Oh, I really want to pursue a big journalistic enterprise around this topic.
The New Yorker story is within the umbrella of this book research that I’m doing… The book is much more focused on people who are putting fire into landscapes intentionally. But part of the picture right now is climate change — a new era of megafires induced by climate change and landscape management and creating these epic fire seasons.
I was directly accountable to my sources in a way that usually as a journalist you’re not because you’re on the sidelines observing.
KSJ: While working on this story, you decided to undergo training to become a wildland firefighter. What was that experience like?
MO: I think what’s different about this project for me than past research projects is that in other cases, you know, if I’m writing about conservation biology, I’m not going to go get a graduate degree in conservation genetics in order to be able to write the story. But with fire, it’s very different. The barrier for me in being able to train as a wildland firefighter doesn’t involve a Ph.D. It involves 40 hours of online coursework, some field experience, and being able to complete a strenuous physical task. I realized pretty quickly that I can really access this world in a way that my previous journalism didn’t necessarily allow for. And that was really exciting as a writer because I was able to write about this from a very different perspective than before, when I was always essentially an observer. This was much more of a embedded experience.
It took me a few months before I actually went out on a fire… and then once I did go out on a fire, it was tremendously exciting because I had never done it before. It involved a lot of physical exertion and effort, which was really different for me as a journalist. And I was around people who knew a lot more than me, it felt like being a student again… I had to perform and employ the information and learning in order to be a contributing crew member and carry out successful burns. So I was directly accountable to my sources in a way that usually as a journalist you’re not because you’re on the sidelines observing. It felt like a new dimension of journalism that I hadn’t experienced before and I was really grateful to have found. And I immediately discovered that wildland firefighting was just brimming with wonderful, smart, delightful characters who have such a deep understanding of policy and ecology.
KSJ: What was the biggest challenge you encountered while reporting this piece?
MO: Once I realized that there was a story I wanted to try and tell about trauma, climate change, and mental health issues among wildland firefighters, I immediately also realized that I was going to have to bring a sort of new level of sensitivity to respect to my sources because the nature of what we would be discussing was so difficult in some cases. And it’s not that I don’t think I bring respect and sensitivity to all of my interviews, but when you’re talking about trauma or extremely sensitive issues like suicide, I think it was important for me to bring renewed attention to the way I conducted interviews, how it’s explained, fact checking processes, and set people up to understand what the process would be like to make sure that they were on board for that… I also had to really think about how I would report in embedded situations because on the one hand, I was a crew member who was working alongside them and would be with them for possibly 16 hours a day. And on the other hand, I’m a journalist and, I’m not one of them — I’m an outsider who’s coming in.
Ultimately, I also decided that I did not want to be paid as a crew member in order for there not to be a conflict of interest… I think it it was an unusual model, and I, at times, felt like I was threading a needle to figure it out as I went, but I think in the end, I managed to show respect to my fellow crew members while avoiding conflicts of interest and making sure that I wasn’t taking advantage of their trust and exploiting them.
KSJ: During your reporting, was there an experience that stood out to you and felt especially rewarding?
MO: The most rewarding thing was the conversations I was able to have with wildland firefighters who have been doing this for decades — what they have seen, what they have witnessed, and what the price is that they’ve paid for their work, it really filled me with a deep respect for what they do. They’re incredibly interesting, thoughtful, hardworking individuals.
You know, in some cases, these jobs are difficult because you’re being tasked with carrying out policies that may be flawed or are very complex. It’s not always black and white — whether it’s good or bad or whether it’s part of the solution or the problem when it comes to wildland fires. So just seeing how they navigated that with a lot of integrity, it was amazing. And I’ve worked on stories before where I felt grateful for being able to have these conversations with people, but this was definitely much more intense than some of those [conversations] in the past, and it was incredibly rewarding.
With some of the people I was interviewing, I was spending many, many hours and over many days discussing difficult subject matter. And I think that the weight of that wasn’t really apparent to me until the piece was finally published, and then I felt much lighter and a sense of relief.
KSJ: As you continue to report on sensitive topics, what lessons do you value and is there any advice you hope to share with other journalist?
MO: I think, for me, it’s a lesson that humility is so critical as a journalist. I graduated from journalism school in 2008, so I’ve been doing this for a fairly good stretch. And yet, I think every time I come to a new story or a new interview, a new research, a new source, a new experience, it’s like humility is important because it forces us to be honest about what we don’t know and what we need to find out. And then that questioning in that pursuit becomes the arc of our narrative, of us seeking to understand something not in a simplistic way, but in a really deep way and from multiple perspectives and angles so that we can bring readers and audiences a very complex, hopefully truthful, and amazing story. So, I try to cultivate humility and am always bringing that to my engagement with people, so that I’m never missing the real story because of my own pride.
Shafaq Zia is a research associate with the Knight Science Journalism Program and a student in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing.