San Diego broadcasters improvise, cooperate to cover wildfires

Covering the San Diego wildfires and keeping area residents informed on the latest developments presented significant challenges for the area’s broadcast community.

As with Hurricane Katrina, TV broadcasters improvised, adapted and cooperated to keep their viewers informed. KFMB, the CBS affiliate; KGTV, the ABC affiliate; KNSD, the NBC O&O; XETV, the FOX affiliate; and independent KUSI provided a significant amount of ENG coverage of the fires and, in many instances, cooperated in ways that maximized their newsgathering resources.

For example, San Diego’s TV stations pooled their helicopter resources. Three helicopters typically provide aerial news coverage for San Diego’s stations. KFMB-TV, KUSI-TV and XETV contract for services from one operator; KNSD-TV contracts with another; and KGTV operates its own news chopper.

Initially, each of the stations provided their own live aerial footage of the fires. KGTV, however, ran into trouble when fire took down its ENG relay site on Mt. Woodson. Days before the fire started, the station replaced the helicopter’s analog ENG transmitter with a digital transmitter as part of the ongoing, industrywide 2GHz Sprint Nextel Broadcast Auxiliary Service (BAS) relocation project. With its only digital ENG relay site on Mt. Woodson incapacitated by fire, the station arranged with KFMB-TV to receive its digital helicopter ENG shots and relay the signals over leased fiber lines, said Patrick Givans, KGTV 10News news operations manager.

At some point during the continuing coverage of the fires, the helicopter operators decided it was impractical have three helicopters in the air at the same time. Ash and soot from the fires made it necessary to wash the turbines of the aircraft frequently. Thus, the stations decided to pool coverage from a single helicopter at a time, rotating control over the helicopter among the stations. Video feeds from the helicopter were transmitted and turned around on the ground for satellite relay to all San Diego stations, Givans said.

According to XETV FOX6 director of engineering Gary Stigall, the stations “were all using each other’s helicopters in two-hour shifts,” during which time the station taking the shift controlled where the helicopter went to gather news, he said.

The fires also caused problems for broadcasters at a main transmission and ENG relay site on Mt. San Miguel. On Monday, Oct. 22, the Harris Fire burned the mountain from which KNSD, KPBS/KPBS-FM, KSWB, KUSI and low-power station KSDX transmit. The fire destroyed KSDX’ facility and took KPBS off the air when electrical utility service to the mountain failed. The other stations remained on-air on power from backup generators.

That fire also brought down phone service to Mt. San Miguel and with it the ability of KGTV, KFMB and XETV to control ENG antennas remotely via land lines. KFMB re-established control of its ENG control at the site via cell phone connection.

XETV improvised an ENG relay solution, taking a portable ENG receiver to its transmitter site in Tijuana where it reestablished ENG relay for live coverage of the western perimeter of the Harris Fire using an FCC ENG license endorsement that allows the station to beam across the border on 6.5GHz spectrum, Stigall said.

The Witch Fire took a similar toll on phone service and remote control of ENG relays on Palomar Mountain, but a bit of good luck allowed XETV to maintain its ENG relay. Even though the fire had taken down telephone lines there and remote control of the ENG relay, the station’s ENG antenna just happened to be “stuck pointing south down the I-15 corridor,” allowing XETV crews to maintain live coverage of the Witch Fire that burned most homes, Stigall said.

Coverage of the fires also allowed KGTV to put its newly adopted one-man-band video journalist newsgathering model to an extreme test. Fielding 27 “digital correspondents,” as the station calls them, with Panasonic AG-HVX200 P2 camcorders, Apple MacBook Pro laptop computers, Apple Final Cut Pro and Verizon broadband wireless Internet cards, the station maximized its field resources to cover the broad geographic area affected.

When possible, digital correspondents met up with three KGTV ENG trucks or three temporary tripod-mounted microwave transmit sites to file stories and live reports. Reporters also used the Web-cam equipped MacBook Pro laptops to stream live reports using Apple’s iChat via the Verizon wireless broadband cards, Givans said. While the video was not 30fps, and somewhat blocky, the approach gave the station reach it otherwise would not have had, he said.