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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Finding the Better Angels in the Fires of Live News

October 23, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

It takes a village to cover rampaging wildfires.

In this case an electronic village, with the terrible, destructive beauty of this week's massive burning chunks of Southern California glowing bright red on TV screens.

The coverage glowed, too.

TV cameras often create their own narrow reality, everything beyond the lens ceasing to exist. Epic fires, however, are those rare stories given context by TV news. Towering, crackling flames are the entire picture, initially. But when the chopper camera pulls back or changes the angle, you see the blaze in proportion to the terrain it's raging across.

Becoming their own visual aids, meanwhile, reporters do their stand-ups against emblazoned hues and smoky skies or while punished by the same Santa Ana winds whipping up tragedy and wooshing fiery embers from site to site in Calabasas, Malibu, Tustin and San Diego County.

These also are the rare stories when TV suspends its relentless crime-and-mayhem watch to celebrate heroes--not only the professional firefighters risking their lives to quell the burning but also the good Samaritans.

In the Lemon Heights area of Orange County on Monday, two gardeners (one of whose comments to the camera in Spanish had to be translated) turned their garden hoses on a smoking house. A smiling woman pulled another do-gooder toward a reporter. "This is the young man who saved my home," she said. Another relieved woman could not identify the anonymous saviors who hosed away the fire at her house, but knew what to title them. "My angels," she declared.

*

Moreover, these are the rare stories when live coverage is justified, when the hottest winds do not necessarily originate inside TV studios. Although they occasionally do, as in some anchors reporting the destruction of "expensive" homes, as if wealth were the primary measurement of loss.

Meanwhile, what odd sights, including KCBS-TV Channel 2 entertainment reporter David Sheehan assigned to fire coverage in Malibu, where Monday night he found a surprisingly chipper Shirley MacLaine moving out of harm's way. Out there in the gray haze, also, was KTLA-TV Channel 5 entertainment specialist and syndicated "Scoop" co-host Sam Rubin, of all people. "You described that smoky scene . . . now let me show it to you," he told an anchor Tuesday morning.

And what yeoman service by those TV choppers and the reporters aboard them, from Channel 2's veteran Bob Tur, who correctly forecast over Calabasas shortly after noon Monday that "this fire will not stop until it reaches Pacific Coast Highway," to Channel 5's Jennifer York, who accurately reported fires engulfing two houses in the Malibu area when other stations were saying no residences had been damaged. How did she know? From her perch in the sky, she witnessed them burning.

In front of your set Monday, you could see six of seven major Los Angeles commercial stations go live for substantial portions of the morning and afternoon, first to cover the fire racing through Lemon Heights, then to monitor the countless flaming epicenters scorching the landscape from Calabasas to the Pacific, evoking memories of the televised wildfires of 1993.

The one holdout, KCOP-TV Channel 13, was not to be outdone at one point Monday, instead telecasting a horrific disaster of another sort, with the gang on "Baywatch" confronting a tidal wave that was threatening a young surfer. A close call, but he survived. Whew!

Real-life dramas in Orange and San Diego counties were more intense, from the heartwarming to the heartbreaking, from people happily locating their endangered pets to others losing their houses and much of their lives. But not their lives.

And in Los Angeles County late Monday afternoon, reporter Rod Bernson was in KTTV-TV Channel 11's chopper above Malibu, describing the "broad ribbon of flame" advancing like a faceless army on a hilltop manor overlooking the ocean. The chopper hovered in that position for some time, giving viewers incredible top-dollar seats for the potential tragic spectacle that was unfolding.

Then, on a winding road leading up the hill, there was movement. It was a vehicle, a fire engine. As if part of a script, defenders were on the way, and you half expected to hear trumpets.

Would they be in time? Or would the manor still fall to the relentless enemy now only a few hundred yards away? Viewers would not find out, for Channel 11 abruptly departed this drama for another--the World Series between the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees being telecast by Fox.

Channel 2 on Monday afternoon stayed with live fire reporting the longest, as its traditional network-owned competitors, KNBC-TV Channel 4 and KABC-TV Channel 7, respectively, opted for their popular Rosie O'Donnell and Oprah Winfrey talk shows. Self-serving promotional fires also burned as always, for by early Monday evening Channel 2 already had a fully produced promo on the air boasting of "more coverage than 4 or 7."

There was barely any coverage on local TV Monday of the world outside the fires. But Channel 2, for one, did manage to find room in the 11 p.m. newscast for its heavily teased tome on "The Sex Patch," a libido-driven story that found reporter Jason Carroll putting on a male-hormone patch himself.

Showing his versatility on Tuesday morning, a presumably patchless Carroll reported from Malibu ("I'm standing at the corner of . . ."), back out in the smolderings among the other reporters.

And the angels.

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