Then, just when the breaking news team was busy covering all of that news, at about 4:30 p.m. we started hearing about a carbon monoxide exposure and subsequent evacuations of several businesses at the Columbia Square strip mall on Southeast Mill Plain Boulevard. Reporter Jack Heffernan put aside his three courts items and started making some calls on that story, quickly getting the word out on social media. He and Web Editor Amy Libby got a short story online.
We were just trying to decide where to play that story in print when a major fire erupted in Portland. Although we don’t spend much time looking across the river, this fast-moving fire got our attention. It started as a grass fire but quickly grew to four alarms, and residents of a nearby neighborhood were evacuated. Power was cut to thousands of people to ensure firefighter safety. You could see the huge plume of smoke from Vancouver.
Clearly this was a story that Columbian subscribers were going to want to read. But what were our options? It was after 5 p.m.; we knew that the Associated Press’ small office in Portland was undoubtedly closed. Jack, our breaking news reporter, was tied up on the carbon monoxide exposure story, the homicide sentencing, and the two other court items, which he actually didn’t get a chance to finish until the next day. All the other reporters were on deadline or due to go home.
Compounding the problem was the fact that at 3:30 p.m. we’d chosen a story about the fires in Brazil’s Amazon region for the bottom of the front page. It would be unacceptable to offer readers a front-page story about Amazon fires and not a word about the Portland fire.
So we did the obvious thing and reported it ourselves. Amy took the lead, cobbling together a story from statements issued on social media by the various fire departments, the police, the power company and other official sources. We looked at online maps and live TV helicopter pictures, which clearly showed what had burned, what was still burning, and where the fire was headed. We folded in other facts we could verify through trusted sources — emergency dispatch logs, for example, and the fire weather conditions as measured at PDX.
After Amy went home, I stayed and updated her breaking story — doing what we call a “write-thru” — and added a few facts from the Portland Fire & Rescue press conference held about 8 p.m., which was televised. By then, the firefighters had pretty good control of the fire and we could finish the story. We put it in the front-page spot where we were going to put the Amazon fires story. It turned out pretty well, I thought. My only regret is we didn’t have any photos (AP finally moved several, along with a story, at midmorning on Tuesday).
Sometimes it’s pretty amazing what a team can do when it’s pressed. But it’s a good thing football season doesn’t start for another week, because I would have missed the game.