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TELEVISION

As hills near L.A. burned, TV was -- where?

Critic's notebook: One displaced by the fire finds too little coverage of its first days.

September 01, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

For three days, I couldn't find my fire on TV. And that's a problem -- before and after -- you've been evacuated from your La Crescenta home as I, my husband and my three children were in the early morning hours this weekend.

As a television critic, I have spent hours watching endless news loops of Octomom coverage, Tim Russert memorials and the Sarah Palin watch. Less than two months ago, I sat through at least an hour's worth of overhead shots of a freeway emptied in anticipation of Michael Jackson's memorial procession. An hour. Of empty freeway.

I have also been riveted by post-earthquake coverage and even other fires; not that long ago, I sat up into the small hours of the morning with my evacuee brother, watching flames roar through Griffith Park toward homes, including his, in Los Feliz. The cameras were so numerous and so close, you could see onto decks and into living rooms.

So why were so few news minutes and almost no imagery given over to the flames that for days now have busily consumed the hills behind my house? To find out what's actually happening, I have to drive up as far as the roadblocks allow, walk the rest of the way and peer through the smoke myself.

Not that I am averse to a bit of on-the-ground reporting, but this is a fire threatening at least five communities. What do we have to do to get a little blow-by-blow televised coverage? "If only Kate Gosselin lived in La Crescenta," I found myself thinking Monday morning as I watched KTLA-TV Channel 5 (which is owned by Tribune Co., as is The Times) move quickly off a brief report of the fire -- it's spreading -- into a segment about decoding carbs, then we'd have the news crews out in full force.

At least on Monday there was some coverage. The death of two firefighters and the threat to the communications towers on Mt. Wilson seem to have gotten everyone's attention. Now that some phone, radio and television service was in peril, suddenly everyone rushed to find La Crescenta/La Canada and Acton on a map. The national news stations began covering it occasionally and KCAL-TV Channel 9 devoted much of the day to the "Breaking News" of what is being described as one of the most unpredictable and widespread wildfires in recent history.

But over the weekend, it was a virtual, and inexplicable, news blackout. Granted, Ted Kennedy's funeral preempted many stories, but hours before my neighborhood was placed under mandatory evacuation, I could find nothing, NOTHING, about the fire on any TV station, local or 24-hour news. It was as if it wasn't happening, except it was, because I could see it, sheets of flame rippling in the dark, just down the street and over the rise.

The next morning, after my family had decamped to my brother's house, there was even more nothing. So much nothing, that I was professionally shocked, not to mention personally frustrated. I realize the foothill communities remain something of a mystery to many of the more westerly residents of the Los Angeles area. We have few historic homes to boast of, no iconic landmarks; David Geffen does not engage in public spats over beach access issues in Big Tujunga. For a minute, the fire threatened Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but it was quickly, and heroically, pushed back.

So the only thing at stake is the hills, oh, and the generally non-fabulous homes of thousands of ordinary residents. Why interrupt the 19th rehash of the Kennedy memorial for something like that?

Disaster inertia does play a part here; wildfires and earthquakes, mudslides and other acts of natural rebellion are the price we pay for the seemingly endless run of days with sunshine. But it's hard not to feel that snobbery had something to do with the lack of televised coverage. Not enough famous people, not enough palm trees, not enough of the stereotypical imagery that says Southland Under Siege.

Certainly, it was not an issue of aesthetics. Coming into the L.A. area on Friday night, you could see the fire form a halo over the hills that looked like a misplaced sunset from the Grapevine. Standing in the parking lot of my local strip mall Sunday night, the hills all around ran with rivulets of fire creeping inexorably down like floes of lava. It's hard to beat the ferocious beauty of a fire against the night sky.

I just wish I hadn't had to walk up the hill get the information I needed -- the flames were still a good distance from my neighborhood, but close enough to feel their heat. We don't expect the breathless minute-by-minute coverage of the various Malibu or the recent Griffith Park blazes, but it would be nice to turn on the television and, in a reasonable amount of time, find some real-time shots of the fire line.

--

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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