KUSA-TV (Denver), 2023
Author(s): Chris Vanderveen and Chris Hansen
In their 21-minute documentary, “Burned,” Chris Vanderveen and Chris Hansen took viewers on an hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute journey detailing how a seemingly insignificant brushfire quickly evolved into a massive Colorado natural disaster of historically devastating proportions.
“Burned” provided an unprecedented look at the origins and progression of the deadly Marshall Fire that engulfed an area of Boulder County during the last two days of 2021. Two people were killed, and the fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes.
Vanderveen and Hansen relied on cellphone video taken by victims, body camera imaging from first responders, social media posts, security camera imaging and other raw sources of video, audio and digital content. They artfully wove those elements together – in intricate and stunning detail – to show how the firestorm started, progressed and impacted the community and its residents.
KUSA-TV began by trying to document the fire’s destructive path. When the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office denied the team’s open records request because of the ongoing criminal investigation into the origins of the fire, Vanderveen and Hansen were undeterred. They turned to other sources. Vanderveen, as KUSA’s director of special projects, and Hansen, the documentary’s photojournalist, began assembling and analyzing a database of information and audio and video.
Vanderveen and Hansen meticulously and resourcefully tracked the fire’s progression. Aided by meta data imbedded in the video and audio content they had aggregated, Vanderveen and Hansen tracked the fire’s progression from moment to moment and location to location as it raged and spread.
As they gathered data for the documentary, the journalists generated stories for KUSA’s ongoing coverage of the fire including pieces on an antiquated early warning system, the confusing first few minutes of the fire that affected the initial response and challenges of fire victims who lost their homes.
The result is the riveting documentary, “Burned,” supported by the real-time data and compelling interviews with fire victims, first responders and others who were impacted.
“Burned” is the product of determined reporting, combined with exceptional storytelling that brought to life raw data the journalists gathered. The KUSA team believes “Burned” is the first local news effort to document a massive natural disaster as it unfolded in real time. The work is particularly relevant as communities, such as Boulder, learn to cope with and understand the ramifications of the increasing frequency of destructive wildfires.