The Big Three news anchors descended on the San Diego area Tuesday as the tumult caused by the California wildfires began to inspire comparisons among TV journos to the mobilization mounted two years ago for coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
“Every story is different, but, in terms of numbers of displaced people, this is the biggest evacuation since Katrina,” said “World News” executive producer Jon Banner, who accompanied ABC anchor Charles Gibson to the fire lines.
By Tuesday afternoon, more than 500,000 people had been evacuated and at least 1,300 homes and business destroyed by 13 major fires from Malibu to south of San Diego.
The New York-based news staffers who flew to Southern California Monday night got a striking look at the disaster as the line of fires lit up the night sky over the San Bernardino Mountains.
ABC News decamped to the end of a cul-de-sac in Rancho Bernardo with plans to stay live throughout the evening with multiple updates of “World News With Charles Gibson” for all time zones and then a special live edition of “20/20.”
Banner said he chose the site for the stark illustration of the randomness of fire: three homes on one side of the street untouched and three on the other side burned to the ground.
Another consideration: It was far enough away from the frontlines to minimize the possibility they would have to move. “I don’t want to put our crew at risk or in a place where we don’t have to,” Banner said.
CBS’ “Evening News With Katie Couric” planned to broadcast live from San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium where the Associated Press reported 10,000 evacuees had taken refuge. With the National Guard on hand, the scene at the stadium drew more comparisons to New Orleans two years ago when the Superdome became refuge of last resort for those with nowhere else to go.
One important distinction, however was that, as of Tuesday afternoon, only two fatalities were directly attributed to the fire storms.
Like Katrina, where warming seas were blamed for increasingly powerful storms, reports warned that in an era of climate change, increasingly deadly wildfires were to become the norm.
“60 Minutes” aired a segment Sunday that warned of the coming age of “mega-fires,” the product of drought caused by rising temperatures and a generation of built-up fuel from fire suppression.
Like ABC, Brian Williams anchored NBC’s “Nightly News” from Rancho Bernardo, 20 miles northeast of downtown San Diego. The newscast positioned correspondent George Lewis at Qualcomm Stadium and “Nightly” weekend anchor Lester Holt in a helicopter overhead.
Williams arrived early Tuesday and has been on the scene reporting for MSNBC and CNBC throughout the day. The network interrupted programming at 2 and 4 p.m. for updates on the fires.
“Nightly News” exec producer Alex Wallace said the Peacock planned to devote at least half of the 22-minute newscast to live coverage of the fires, and to devote much of its other segments to related reports on drought and climate change.
“The scary thing is there is no end in sight,” Wallace said, noting that few of the fires were even close to being contained. “These stories develop quickly — it’s not at the Katrina level yet, but there are hundreds of thousands of people evacuated.”
All three network morning shows were to originate from the scene on Wednesday. CBS’ “Early Show” co-anchor Harry Smith, NBC’s “Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer and ABC’s “Good Morning America” co-anchor Chris Cuomo were set to anchor their respective shows from San Diego County.
Cable news nets spent much of the day using aerial shots from local affiliates as correspondents ventured as close as they dared to the fire lines. CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Fox News Channel’s Geraldo Rivera were both en route Tuesday.