The Oak Park Motel sign in Gates on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The iconic photo was part of an award-winning photo essay by Amanda Loman of Salem Reporter.

Reporting on the wildfires that struck the Santiam Canyon last fall earned Salem Reporter top journalism honors in competition encompassing five Western states.

The Society of Professional Journalists on Wednesday announced that the reporting team of Rachel Alexander, Saphara Harrell and Jake Thomas was awarded first place in regional competition among small newsrooms for the report “A night in hell – Santiam Canyon’s ordeal.” The story won in the category of hard news feature stories.

Read the winning entry here.

The team also was awarded first place for breaking news writing for a package of stories about the fires of last September.

Photographer Amanda Loman won first place in photo essays for her work on the Beachie Creek Fire.

Alexander and Harrell also were awarded second place in education reporting for their report on challenges to continued police presence in Salem schools.

Salem Reporter competed against other similar-sized newsrooms in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.

“The team worked endless, hard hours to cover those fires last year,” said Les Zaitz, Salem Reporter editor. “Being judged by our peers as producing outstanding journalism is wonderful affirmation that we are meeting our goal – giving Salem a high-quality source for local news.”

Salem Reporter turned its entire news team to task of covering the wildfires.

“I remember how surreal the whole week felt, especially walking back and forth between my house and the fairgrounds to check on the evacuation and talk to people who were sheltering,” said Alexander, managing editor and education reporter. “The red-orange sky and smoke in the air is still the thing that sticks with me the most out of all of it. I remember floods of emails and comments from readers who were relying on us to share information and resources about how to help and how to get help.”

“I most vividly recall driving out to the scene two days after it happened. I didn’t have an N-95 mask and the air was choked with smoke,” said Harrell, local government and breaking news reporter. “The sky was completely orange and embers still burned in some places. I remember being surprised by the amount of people who were driving by on the back roads, trying to assess whether they had lost everything. Another thing that will stick out in my mind was someone’s vegetable garden, the pumpkins blackened as if they had been charred on a grill.”

“Aside from the eerie red sky over Salem, I remember the fire manager describing to me how the blaze 'stood up' as the winds gusted through the forest,” said Jake Thomas, economy and state government reporter.

As the fires burned through the Santiam Canyon, the team focused reporting on the events of the first big night of the fire – the Monday night of Labor Day weekend.

“A night in hell” proved to be one of the most-read stories ever produced by Salem Reporter, drawing national recognition.

( BEHIND THE STORY: How Salem Reporter pieced together the account of Santiam Canyon's night of fire )

What does it take to produce an award-winning report?

“So much of the early wildfire coverage was chaotic and piecemeal, just trying to tell people what we knew as best we could and document what was unfolding,” Alexander said. ”With this piece, we took a step back and tried to write a real first draft of history and capture, in human terms, what happened that night.”

“’Night in hell’ represents quality journalism because it took a large-scale event and distilled it into one cohesive account that was able to illustrate what running from a fire felt, sounded and looked like. We took something that could have been a dozen stories but narrowed our focus into one, combining the tales of so many that night, for a story that took the reader there as if from scenes in a movie,” Harrell said. “You knew what a Forest Service employee was doing just as much as a family vacationing for the holiday weekend. It captured not just the scope of the destruction, but also the scope of the lives touched by the wildfire.”

For Thomas, the account “stands out from other news accounts by focusing on people, not bureaucracies. It makes the life and region-altering event come alive by focusing on the stories of people at the center of it: the firefighters trapped at a state park, campers shaken from sleep with orders to evacuate and low-powered radio station advising canyon residents where to go.”

Among the iconic photos to emerge from the coverage were those of people returning to Detroit for the first time after swept through the mountain town. Loman was one of the first photographers to get there.

Greg Wentzel, of West Salem, searches through the remains of his vacation home in Detroit with his children, Ozzy, 13, and Destiny, 8, on Saturday, Sept. 27. The family had just completed a five-year remodel of their home the week before the fire. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)  

Here's her account of photography that day:

“I drove up to Detroit Lake on the second day road access had re-opened, several weeks after the fires. I was driving through a residential area when I came across the Wentzel family standing next to the remains of their second home,” Loman recalled. “I was there for probably a half hour just talking with them about their home and their experiences evacuating the night of the fire before I ever took a photo.

“I stayed with them as they began to sort through the ashes, taking time to try and work out what damaged items might have been originally. I chose this photo for my entry because I thought it had solid layering that helped tell the story. In the foreground and middle, you have the family searching through the burned remnants of their home, and in the background you can see more of what was left of the neighborhood; burned trees, a fire place, a camper brought up to take the place of a destroyed home.”

The Statesman Journal won three first-place awards in competition among medium-sized newsrooms. Emily Teel won in business and economics reporting for a story on vineyard harvests and first for soft feature writing for a story on a truffle-hunting dog. Capi Lynn won in hard news feature writing for a Santiam Canyon fire story. The Statesman also won second for an audio series.

Contact Salem Reporter by email at [email protected]

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