Arizona wildfire series wins Knight Science Journalism’s Victor K. McElheny Award

The Knight Science Journalism Program’s second annual Victor K. McElheny Award for local and regional science journalism will honor an investigative series that explores the ongoing risk of deadly wildfires in the American West.

Spearheaded by The Arizona Republic, “Ahead of the Fire” shines 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) tell 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 images 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,” the judges said. “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,” says 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 series “Turned Away,” about the controversial practice of ambulance diversion and how it continues to put lives at risk in the Midwest and beyond; “Arizona’s Next Water Crisis,” published by The Arizona Republic, which explores 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 support from Victor K. McElheny, Ruth McElheny, and the Rita Allen Foundation. Screeners reviewed the first round of submissions, and the final panel of judges included James Boren of the Fresno State Institute for Media and Public Trust; Ibby Caputo, freelance; Alicia Chang of the Associated Press; Bill Manny of the Idaho Public Television; and Sabriya Rice of the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, founded more than 30 years ago, seeks to nurture and enhance the ability of journalists from around the world to accurately document and illuminate the often complex intersection of science, technology, and human culture. It does so through an acclaimed fellowship program — which hosts 10 or more journalists every academic year — and also through science-focused seminars, skills-focused master classes, workshops, and publications. Since it began, the program has hosted more than 300 fellows, who continue to cover science across a range of platforms in the United States, including
The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Time, Scientific American, Science, the Associated Press, and broadcast outlets ranging from ABC News to CNN, as well as in numerous other countries.

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