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Last week, The Arizona Republic featured a front page story asking “Has Yarnell Hill Fire changed way crews fight fires?” with a file photo of the recent Slide Fire burning in Oak Creek Canyon.Christopher Fox Graham

As an editor who spends most of my time designing the pages in our publications, my initial thought was someone at The Arizona Republic had screwed up and picked a file photo from the wrong fire.

Alas, it appears the wrong photo was the intent of the story. The article, written by reporter Amy B. Wang, draws a thin connection between the Yarnell Hill Fire and the Slide Fire. Wang even hints at this weak tie when she writes, “Since Yarnell, any measurable changes in the systems of wildland firefighting have been hard to grasp.”

The changes are hard to grasp because the two different blazes were fought under different conditions and with different strategies. Yarnell is a lightly trafficked town at the northern edge of the Sonoran Desert. Oak Creek Canyon is a major tourist attraction in a riparian area.

The 8,400-acre Yarnell Hill Fire spread through relatively flat terrain in the foothills north of Wickenburg, burning 129 homes and buildings. The fire occurred well into the fire season and firefighting resources were thin as crews were busy all over the state, including battling the still-burning Doce Fire to the north. A drought, temperatures well over 100 degrees and high winds coming off the desert to the south meant the fire would spread fast, which led to the deaths of the firefighters.

The Slide Fire began at the beginning of fire season when Hotshots from all around the country were training or fighting small fires throughout the state so the response was immediate and overwhelming. Temperatures were 88 degrees, on average, and the narrow, winding canyon alleviated the high winds on most of those days.

Firefighters we spoke with during the Slide Fire did not make a connection to the Yarnell Hill Fire in their statements or presentations because there was not a meaningful tie.

In Wang’s story, it is not the firefighters or public information officers who connect them, but apparently an exasperated reporter trying to build a more convoluted story: “At last, a reporter invoked Yarnell. Did the memory of last year’s tragedy have anything to do with the approach to the Slide Fire?” As journalists, our job is to report on the news, not make it. Inserting our own bias to build a bigger story is disingenuous to our profession and our readers.

The question posited in the Republic’s headline seems to suggest the deaths fundamentally changed wildland firefighting techniques, when the conclusion of Wang’s story is “no, not really,” making the 1,860-word story moot. It is a clear elucidation of Betteridge’s Law of Headlines: “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.’”

The Arizona Republic often has a habit of lumping all stories outside of Phoenix into one collective box. Local newspapers do a far better job of reporting on their communities than do the massive conglomerates with weekend reporters who visit towns outside their region, pen a story and then head home. Local reporters compared the fire to other local fires, like Brins, La Barranca, Wallow and Rodeo-Chediski, which were fought in similar conditions.

Additionally, poorly reported stories like this make readers throughout the state wary of heading to Sedona, making it even harder for businesses in Oak Creek Canyon to recover from the Slide Fire.

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