So, potheads didn’t start the Rim fire after all.
On Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service revealed that a hunter let an illegal fire “escape,” sparking the blaze in and around Yosemite National Park that has burned more than 237,341 acres, or 370 square miles, and cost about $72 million so far to fight.
One problem with disasters these days is that rumors and/or misinformation spread like, well, wildfire.
In this latest example, Twain Harte Fire and Rescue Chief Todd McNeal told a community meeting this week that the blaze was definitely human-caused. A Los Angeles Times headline just two days ago blared: “Rim fire: Pot-growing operation near Yosemite may have sparked blaze.”
As the story said:
In his Aug. 23 talk, a video of which has been posted on YouTube, McNeal said that the fire started in a section of the Stanislaus National Forest inaccessible by foot or vehicle and that it was “highly suspected” that an illegal marijuana growing operation sparked the blaze.
Plenty of people probably just saw the headline; lots of them probably missed the words “may have.” And like a fire skipping from treetop to treetop, the word -- the wrong word -- spread. And The Times wasn't alone in reporting the pot grower connection. Far from it.
So now we know, or think we know, who’s really to blame for the fire. But who’s to blame for the wrong information?
You are, dear readers.
And no, that’s not just a journalist making an excuse. Every reporter I know or have known in a very long career in this business tries to get the story right, every time. Every editor I know or have known does the same. And for most of the last half a century or so, journalists usually had the cushion of time, often several hours, before a story went into -- wait for it -- print.
But that cushion is gone. With the rise of the Internet, in a sense we’ve gone back to the future, back to the days of multiple newspaper editions printed throughout the day, when updates on big stories were breathlessly hawked. (Check out newspapers’ rush to report on the sinking of the Titanic, for example.)
The Internet is all about speed. And today’s readers demand the latest information, all the time. So when “news” happens, it gets into print. Except sometimes the “news” isn’t quite right. Journalists may couch information in their stories with words such as “alleged” or “may have,” but those nuances can be lost on readers.
You want news fast, readers? Well, you'll get it fast, but it won't be complete, and it may not always be right.
So as of today, a hunter started the Rim fire, not (yesterday’s) illegal pot growers. We can move on.
Now we can argue over whether said hunter, as yet unnamed, should be named.