Los Angeles Times, 2023
Author(s): Erika D. Smith and Anita Chabria
Los Angeles Times columnists Erika D. Smith and Anita Chabria raised the hard question of whether tiny California towns destroyed by wildfires should be rebuilt at incredible expense, only to face the risk of burning again in an era of climate change, worsening fires and drought.
With the Dixie Fire ruins of devastated Greenville, Calif., as backdrop, Smith and Chabria explored the emotional and complicated issues the question raises.
In their series of four columns, Smith and Chabria laid out a bold and controversial argument for not rebuilding every town. They delved into the often-conservative politics of the state’s rural residents, which can lead them to question established climate science. They also looked at how far-right provocateurs capitalize on the loss and confusion in the aftermath of wildfires to promote violence and division. And they devoted their final column in the series to the story of two Greenville residents, brought together by the Dixie Fire, who dream of rebuilding their lives and the town they hold dear.
Smith and Chabria worked on the project for nearly a year. They talked with climate scientists, land policy experts, lawyers and politicians across the political spectrum. They interviewed residents who were victims of the 2021 Dixie Fire, which devastated Greenville and about 1 million acres of California land with an intensity once thought impossible.
The columnists spoke with victims whose homes survived and stand amid the ruins; those who will rebuild no matter the cost or risk; and those desperate for a fresh start someplace safer. They also spoke with people who lost everything, including loved ones.
The series of columns included data and images by Times photojournalist Francine Orr, providing readers with a deeper understanding of the pain, loss and danger wildfires bring to rural communities. The images also conveyed the hope and resilience of others – a sentimentality that the columnists lament can be both beautiful and misplaced.
Smith and Chabria concluded that solutions are languishing due to political neglect. They challenged California Gov. Gavin Newsom to begin a comprehensive and cohesive statewide discussion on the overlapping issues of climate change, forest management and housing to answer the hard questions of how and where Californians will live in coming years.
“Rebuild | Reburn” represents the best of what commentary and opinion writing is meant to achieve. It is an unblinking examination of critical issues that those in power aren’t addressing. The columnists raised difficult questions and offered solutions supported by ground-level, people-centered, scientific-based reporting. The series stands out for its excellent reporting and clear, even-handed prose.