August was a turbulent month for wildfire activity in the Western U.S. California alone suffered through two of its largest wildfires in recent history, and there are more than 80 other large, active fires burning in 15 states. Record-breaking temperatures and climate change are playing a role in the size and scale of the fires, and the coronavirus pandemic is complicating efforts to contain the blazes and safely evacuate those in their path. But a review by Media Matters found that these factors were largely ignored in broadcast TV news coverage of the month’s wildfires.
- Corporate broadcast TV outlets — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 114 segments about wildfires on their morning and evening news shows from August 1 to August 31.
- Only five of the 114 wildfire segments -- just 4% of them -- mentioned climate change. All five of these mentions occurred during a 10-day period from August 14-23, which saw California suffer under extreme heat.
- This marks the third year in a row that major corporate broadcast TV news shows have mentioned climate change in less than 5% of wildfire segments.
- Notably, four of the five climate mentions appeared during broadcast morning programs -- three of which appeared on the program CBS This Morning: Saturday and were noted by CBS meteorologist Jeff Berardelli.
- The coronavirus pandemic, which is complicating efforts to fight wildfires and handle evacuations, was mentioned in only 17 of the 114 wildfire segments, or 15%.
- California’s exploitative practice of using prison labor to fight the fires, which was significantly reduced because of the pandemic, was mentioned in only 3 wildfire segments.
The climate crisis is amplifying Western wildfires
Throughout August 2020, wildfires in California alone have burned over 1 million acres, destroyed nearly 1,400 buildings, and left at least seven people dead. Its two biggest blazes, the LNU and SCU Lightning Complex fires, are the second and third largest in the state’s history. While record-breaking temperatures, lightning storms, and tinder-dry forests are contributing to the fires, climate change is without a doubt amplifying their intensity.
Mid-August in California also saw summer temperatures in some places reaching 15 to 30 degrees above their late-summer averages, rivaling the state’s historic heat wave in July 2006. The latest heat wave began around August 14, and although temperatures started to subside a week later, they were still well-above average August temperatures, especially in the capital region.
Extreme heat and worsening wildfires are both driven by climate change. As climate scientist Daniel Romps said, “Were the heat wave and the lightning strikes and the dryness of the vegetation affected by global warming? Absolutely yes.” He continued, “Were they made significantly hotter, more numerous, and drier because of global warming? Yes, likely yes, and yes.”
Climate change is also acting as a “threat multiplier” for wildfires; due to California’s rising temperatures and increasing dryness, the days with extreme fire weather conditions in the fall have more than doubled since the 1980s. Additionally, as The Washington Post recently noted:
California has seen a significant uptick in large-wildfire activity because of a combination of climate change, land-use practices and other factors. Large fires have also increased across other parts of the West, which climate studies tie to human-caused climate change that alters the timing of precipitation, makes summers hotter and vegetation drier, and leads to more days with extreme weather that enable fires to spread rapidly.
For the Western U.S. in general, temperatures since 1970 have “increased by about double the global average, lengthening the western wildfire season by several months and drying out large tracts of forests, making them more fire-prone.” California has warmed by about 3 degrees since the beginning of the century, and the state’s wildfires have also become much bigger. And these conditions will get much worse -- California’s own Climate Assessment finds that as greenhouse gas emissions continue, both “the frequency of extreme wildfires would increase, and the average area burned statewide would increase by 77 percent” by 2100.
Unfortunately, these facts about extreme heat and wildfire have not really swayed broadcast news networks to mention climate change consistently in their coverage of these extreme weather events.
Only 4% of wildfire segments on broadcast TV news mentioned climate change in the entire month of August
From August 1 through August 31, morning and evening news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC collectively aired 114 segments on major Western wildfires. Only five of these wildfire segments, or 4%, mentioned climate change. All five of these climate mentions came in mid-August, which was when California was suffering through a monster heat wave.
Three of the five climate mentions came on CBS. Specifically, they all occurred on CBS This Morning: Saturday, and were all made by CBS News meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli.
On August 15, CBS This Morning: Saturday co-host Dana Jacobson discussed how “broiling heat” is helping to fuel several wildfires in California. Berardelli then noted how climate change was “definitely contributing” to the Western heat wave, noting that “the West is warming faster than pretty much any other place in the United States.” On August 22, he mentioned climate change in weather segments during both the 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. hours of CBS This Morning: Saturday.
ABC’s only climate mention in its wildfire coverage came during the August 19 edition of World News Tonight. Reporting on the complex fires that formed, ABC News correspondent Clayton Sandell noted how the extreme weather and climate change helped supercharge the fires.
NBC’s only mention came during the August 19 edition of Today. Weather anchor Al Roker noted that “the wildfire season in the West since 1970, because of climate change, it’s now 105 days longer, [has] three times as many large fires [and] six times as many acres burned than 1970.”
For at least the third year in a row, broadcast networks have done a terrible job at linking climate change to the worsening Western wildfires. In November 2019, just 3% of broadcast networks’ segments on California wildfires mentioned climate change. During both California wildfires in November 2018 and general wildfires during the summer of 2018, these networks mentioned climate change in less than 2% of their wildfire segments.
Over a 10-day period in August, news shows discussed extreme heat in wildfire segments over 30 times, and still barely mentioned climate
Nearly half of the wildfire segments that aired on broadcast news over a 10-day period of extreme heat between August 14 and August 23 -- 35 out of 71 segments -- mentioned that the heat wave or extreme temperatures generally help to fuel the wildfires.
But only three of these 35 wildfire segments discussing the heat wave also mentioned climate change.
These three segments were made by meteorologist Jeff Berardelli on the August 15 and August 22 editions of CBS This Morning: Saturday. During the 8 a.m. hour on August 22, he mentioned that the heat wave is continuing in the West, and explained that, “as we continue to warm the climate, fires are getting bigger and bigger.”
Ignoring the role of climate change during segments discussing the double threat of extreme heat and wildfires is a failure to give viewers the accurate context around extreme weather. Heat waves and wildfires will continue to worsen as we burn fossil fuels -- it’s time for broadcast news shows to mention this fact consistently in their reporting.
The coronavirus pandemic and incarcerated firefighters have also been mostly missing from broadcast news’ wildfire coverage
The coronavirus pandemic is complicating the efforts to fight the fires and handle evacuations, including the need to socially distance firefighters and evacuees and disinfect key equipment while trying and avoid the smoke. Additionally, some research has found that air pollution from wildfires can worsen COVID-19 symptoms and make those exposed to smoke more vulnerable to the virus.
In California alone, there have been over 700,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 along with over 13,000 deaths. This makes the fires only one part of the overall problem in the Golden State -- a “disaster inside a disaster” which one veteran firefighter called “manifestly an unsafe situation.”
Despite these intertwined issues of a pandemic and wildfires, only 17 out of the 114 wildfire segments on broadcast news in August, or 15%, mentioned the pandemic. ABC and NBC aired six segments each, while CBS aired five.
Another key storyline in coverage of the wildfires is California’s exploitative practice of using prison labor to fight them. The state has relied on the use of prisoners to fight fires for decades, with over 3,000 inmates working at fire camps and roughly 2,200 serving as firefighters. These inmates are paid roughly $1 an hour, with some likening the practice to “literally captive labor.” However, many of these essential firefighters have been released early due to the pandemic:
The early releases have meant there are 600 fewer inmate firefighters available this fire season compared to last year.
Inmate firefighters “are an integral part of our firefighting operations," Cal Fire Resource Management Communications Officer Christine McMorrow said.
The use of prisoners to fight fires was mentioned in only three segments; NBC mentioned it twice, CBS mentioned it once, and ABC did not mention prison labor at all.
Given the terrible conditions in which the inmate firefighters work, the low pay that they receive, and how essential they are to fighting wildfires, not nearly enough attention is paid to their role in broadcast TV news reports on wildfires.
Extreme weather in the Western U.S. is part of the new normal being shaped by climate change
Climate-fueled wildfires and extreme heat are part of the new normal for the Western U.S., and with resources stretched so thin to fight these fires, it’s hard to believe that the worst fire months are still ahead for the region. On top of this, a new heat wave with temperatures “rarely ever seen” is forecasted to hit Arizona, California, and Nevada during Labor Day weekend, with significant potential to amplify wildfires.
This problem will only worsen as we continue to burn fossil fuels.
The scientific links of climate change to the region’s extreme heat and wildfires couldn’t be more clear, but viewers of broadcast news programs must have that information as they consume these reports. Broadcast news shows must do better at accurately reporting climate change and other factors involved in the 2020 wildfires -- having only 4% of wildfire segments mention climate change is unacceptable as we face the existential crisis of our time head-on.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq and SnapStream video database services for any variations of the terms “wildfire” and “fire” on ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, CBS’ This Morning and Evening News, and NBC’s Today and Nightly News from August 1 through August 31, 2020. We also included the third hour of NBC’s Today show.
We included as segments when we found significant discussion of the California/Western wildfires or mentions of the wildfires within the context of a weather report. We defined significant discussion as a paragraph or more on the wildfires. We did not count teasers, passing mentions, or headline news rundowns, which are brief and typically occur in the very beginning of a news show, at the top of the hour, or a half-hour mark.
We then searched within those results to determine whether a segment mentioned climate change, the heat wave, coronavirus, or prison labor.
We reviewed the segments for whether they mentioned any of the following terms within the context of the wildfires: “climate change” or “global warming” for climate change; “heatwave,” “excessive heat,” “record heat,” “record breaking heat,” “dangerous heat,” or "heat emergency” for heat wave; “covid,” “coronavirus,” or “pandemic” for coronavirus; and “prisoner” or “inmate” for prison labor.