Reporting from the Front Lines of Oregon’s Wildfires
A recent journalism graduate chases down active fires in the devastating wake of this season's historic wildfires, reporting national breaking news
MEDFORD, Ore. – From a momentarily safe distance, Megan Willgoos ’20 trains her camera lens toward a wall of gray smoke blotting out the horizon, the thump-thump-thump of firefighting helicopters wading into the plumes to douse the flames, as she describes to viewers the latest efforts to contain the worst wildfires the state of Oregon has ever seen.
Over just three days last week, Willgoos broadcasted live on KTVL News 10 more than two dozen times from the front lines of the wildfires in Oregon, covering national breaking news less than four months after receiving her journalism degree from Roger Williams University. The multimedia journalist is reporting from the epicenter of a historic national crisis, a massive, tri-state wildfire outbreak that has consumed more than five million acres across Oregon, California and Washington State, taken the lives of at least 27 people, and left a toxic cloud hanging in the atmosphere across the West Coast.
Starting before dawn, she’s consulting with her news team, sourcing story leads from residents through Facebook, and chasing down active fires and wildfires that have been extinguished but left utter destruction in their wake. On one of those days, Willgoos walks through Bear Creek Mobile Home Park, the odd air-conditioning system or wood-burning stove still standing amid piles of ash-covered rubble and vehicles blasted down to nothing but steel and stripped rims.
“I drive around to find the best spot to go live from, and seeing where I am allowed to go, since many of the streets were blocked off by police. Sometimes police let the news car through, but it depends on if the spot is still considered dangerous,” says Willgoos, a Coventry, R.I., native who moved to Medford, Ore. in May to join the KTVL News team.
While a typical news day sees her reporting live only three times for the afternoon and evening news, the urgency to update the community on the wildfires has her broadcasting reports up to 10 times a day, often interrupting regular programming with breaking news updates. “My team and I are happy with the work we have done,” she says. “We have provided, we think, the most comprehensive and constant coverage for our community.”
This type of work is certainly not without peril. “I was driving back into the Rogue Valley from the Two Four Two Fire in Chiloquin and I saw huge smoke plumes on both sides of the freeway. As I saw this, I was getting notifications from my news team about reporters stuck in traffic near the fires and one reporter saying things along the lines of, ‘This is the most stressful and scary thing I have ever done in my life,’ as she was about to do a Facebook Live to keep people informed.”
“As I take a step back, put on ‘normal clothes’ and don't have my reporter face on, it has hit me hard” Willgoos says. “Although I moved here almost four months ago, this is my community.”
But Willgoos was prepared to be successful in this line of work. In RWU’s digital-first journalism program, fledgling journalists learn by doing, training in multimedia news gathering and reporting techniques through hands-on practice. Willgoos had experience reporting stories locally and abroad, from the demolition of Brayton Point Power Plant’s cooling towers to the large-scale off-shore wind turbine project in Block Island and the impact of beach resorts on Caribbean ecosystems during a faculty-led, study-abroad course in the Dominican Republic.
“Megan is one of many young reporters who leave here ready to work in the newsroom of the future. Our ‘Mark of Excellence’ award-winning journalism program equips students to work in mobile, fast-paced, digital news environments,” says Associate Professor of Journalism Paola Prado. “Megan makes us proud, as do our other journalism graduates, who are heralding in a new frontier in reporting: they deliver hard-hitting news at breakneck digital speed.”
Her work to keep people informed won’t be done when the wildfires are finally contained. But for now, Willgoos will check in before daybreak, determined to report critical updates and tell the stories behind the national headlines.