As this year draws to a close, Boulder Reporting Lab is looking back on the last 12 months. It’s our first time doing so – we launched in November 2021.
We published more than 250 stories, and our website tells us which ones got the most clicks. They include: plans to build a bike path along the North Foothills highway; the reopening of Brasserie Ten Ten, the French bistro on Walnut Street; mapping bike thefts cross the city; the grief surrounding pets lost in the Marshall Fire; the 2022 election results; and the local history of Peal Street.
Clicks and attention don’t always fully capture the impact a story had on us or our readers, however. So for this year’s retrospective, we’re highlighting the stories — and their backstories — that stood out the most for us.
Happy almost 2023, Boulder.
Though I’m just beginning to understand the complexity of climate and environmental issues surrounding our town, some themes have already resurfaced time and again in my time reporting here. The first arose in my first story written for BRL — and was then covered more at length in the second — that the land surrounding our community is adapted to burn. In fact, fire is required for forest health in our area.
Yet over the last 100 to 150 years, forest fires across the United States have been put out as quickly as possible. This overzealous extinguishing led to a build-up of fuels that now collaborates with climate change to create ever-present fire risk. Our overgrown forests are drying out, meaning Boulder will likely see more fires in the coming years, and will need to start some fires itself. Prescribed burns will be an important tool to keep non-prescribed fires from burning into catastrophe.
The second theme I came across in my reporting was water, or lack thereof. At first, I covered the worries of water quality in a landscape with wildfire and old mines, and water quantity in an area where droughts are common. But it’s not just water for human consumption and irrigation we need to worry about. We also need to consider how to provide water to the land that will keep areas around Boulder from turning to desert. With research exploring the potential benefits of beavers and cover crops, in the coming year I hope to get out in the field and take part in these efforts to put more water in our landscape, infuse the soils with more carbon, and ensure that Boulder maintains a reliable drinking water source.
The third theme, recently uncovered, was communication. In a time where seemingly all information is available all the time, how do we navigate that information? What is the best way for government agencies to communicate with the public? Where should the public go for trusted information? These themes will likely become more pertinent as disasters become more common.
The fourth theme, and last I’ll mention here, was resilience. In addition to prescribed burns, Boulder will have to undertake larger thinning projects to mitigate fire risk. But it’s not just government agencies needing to act. Homeowners must harden their properties to lessen the chance of them burning. I visited one resident who worked with Wildfire Partners to better insulate himself from danger, and covered community efforts doing the same. Such hardening is going to be something everyone in Boulder must soon consider. For, as Brian Oliver, Boulder’s wildland division chief said, a fire in Boulder proper is not out of the question.
I’m sharing a story from December 2021, when I visited the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless. That night, eight people showed up to the shelter for a place to sleep. They were given blankets and a bus pass because the shelter was at capacity.
Historically, this is not unusual for Boulder. It happens in other communities, too. I mention this story because it’s particularly challenging to tell.
Physically, it’s difficult to report in freezing temperatures. I don’t have a lot of patience to stand around in the cold. Numb hands and freezing ink turn my bad penmanship into scribbles.
It’s not always clear who to blame. The shelter is among the last threads of a much larger, yet tattered, safety net. After leaving the shelter, I vented to my roommates about why Boulder lets people sleep outside. A man knocked on the door of my apartment. He probably needed a place to stay, but didn’t ask. I gave him $10 for food.
City data indicate that in the last year, nearly 200 people have been housed through the county’s homelessness program. In the meantime, a wildfire has pushed more people toward homelessness, mental health services have been stretched thinner, and efforts to build housing in a city practically surrounded by open space have remained complicated and controversial.
I’m not sure how all this adds up, and there seem to be more questions posed by the community than feasible solutions. A year since I visited the shelter, almost to the day, 17 people were turned away due to capacity. We’ll see what happens in 2023.
Boulder Reporting Lab is about as ambitious as a newsroom can be. But at times, our aspirations are still limited by our small size. So we raise the level of ambition and impact of our work through collaboration with other newsrooms and journalists across Boulder County, the state and the country.
I’m highlighting two BRL-initiated collaborative reporting projects we accomplished this year. Both were both about the Marshall Fire. Both were made possible by our proximity to this tragedy.
The first was our most ambitious project yet – a multi-newsroom reporting effort with the Center for Environmental Journalism at CU Boulder, KUNC public radio and The Conversation, which was led by seven CU graduate students. The project began with a broad question: What are the lingering health impacts of the Marshall Fire?
Through months of reporting, the students homed in on an important untold story about “standing-home” survivors whose houses didn’t burn down, but were severely damaged by smoke. In some cases, their homes remain uninhabitable because of health issues. “It’s a public health crisis nobody wants to talk about,” one survivor said.
This was a complex human and science story to tell. The reporters had to unpack the potential unique health effects of wildland-urban interface fires without drawing hyperbolic conclusions. Because the science on smoke damage is lacking, so much of this project involved bringing to life the pain of living with uncertainty – of not knowing if your home is safe to live in, sometimes while you are still living in it. The students worked with investigative journalist Robyn Vincent of KUNC on a radio segment. The Conversation published an accompanying story written by some of the researchers themselves. It’s a unique collaboration where scientists and journalists across various media combined forces to elevate the reach and credibility of this crucial work.
We heard from fire survivors in response. “A huge thank you for articulating the immense battles we ‘standing survivors’ face,” one wrote. “This was one of the first times I’ve seen data-driven arguments validating our experiences.”
Second is a beautiful storytelling project about fire loss and grief with universal themes, by freelance multimedia journalist Eli Imadali, in collaboration with BRL and Leigh Paterson of KUNC. NPR also ran this story, bringing it to millions of people. It’s best to read it — no summary will do it justice. BRL played role of facilitator, editor and publisher. Many readers told us it was the most touching, most memorable story they read about the Marshall Fire.
Thanks for reading in 2022. See you next year!