Before the pandemic really hit, before the Potter Fire, before the North Complex West Zone (Bear) Fire the New Year started with tremendous uncertainty. At least for me.
In September 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 5, nicknamed the “gig worker bill,” which reclassified millions of California independent contractors as employees. Most notoriously this impacted Uber and Lyft drivers but it also impacted freelance writers. Including, me.
On Jan. 1, I was faced with losing the best job (aside from motherhood) I’ve ever had. For 30 years, either from a desk in the newsroom or my desk at home, I have written news and feature stories, covering this community. My community.
The new law said I could only write 35 stories a year as a freelancer or the newspaper had to hire me as a staff reporter. While 35 might seem like quite a few, I average 52 columns and 208 articles a year.
Undaunted, or maybe just stubborn, I kept writing. In January I covered restaurant week in Butte County, guided snowshoe tours in Lassen National Forest and the winning esports teams at Central and Ishi Middle Schools among other stories. I wrote my columns. And, Steve Schoonover, former city editor; Mike Wolcott, editor; and the company Powers That Be, tried to figure out a way I could keep the “gig” I love.
In February with the status of my future employment still tenuous, I kept writing — Kayli Corron, Butte County Lone Pine 4-H, was selected as one of five delegates to represent California at the National 4-H conference; the wonderful ARC thrift store in Oroville closed its doors; and the Glenn County STEM Exp once again showcased the skills of local youth.
None of these were “breaking news,” but in community journalism it isn’t always about the city council, county supervisors, local elections, accidents and crime. It’s a whole lot about telling the stories of the people who make the community tick, make it what it is and that’s what I love about the job.
March rolled in with both the good and the bad. I had a contract with the paper that would allow me to keep writing and be AB5 compliant and I wrote a story about the coronavirus. Little did I or any of the other reporters or editors know that this story would be the first of hundreds of stories we’d be writing about the pandemic. Little did we know how many of these stories would be painfully sad. Little did we know that they wouldn’t be the only heartbreaking stories that were coming.
In April the students in Las Plumas/Oroville Alliance Band learned their hard earned, well deserved trip to perform at Carnegie Hall was canceled. The Fellows Club of Oroville announced the Top 10 students, but this year there would be no awards ceremony. It also became clear that graduations were going to have to look a lot different in 2020. The kids’ disappointment was palpable. And that’s when the adults stepped up.
With no performances scheduled the State Theatre Arts Guild decided to give local youth the chance to see their name in lights. The STAGE volunteers started lighting up the theater’s beautiful new marquee with the names of the band members, Top 10 students and all the 2020 graduates. And the downtown business association hosted the first of several drive-in movie nights in the parking lot behind the auditorium.
May drifted into June and a few things began to open up like the Aquatics Center and the Tiny Giving Pantry on Montgomery Street. Oroville Rotary made plans and began raising money for a COVID-safe fireworks’ display. I donned a mask and covered the Las Plumas and Oroville high schools’ drive-through graduation ceremonies. While untraditional, administrators, teachers, parents, families, friends and students made the commemorations festive and fun by decorating cars, holding up signs and cheering from a safe distance. Bright moments in an otherwise dreary spring.
July brought hot temperatures and Rotary of Oroville’s fireworks show with the largest pyrotechnics display in the event’s history. It was good to write about something “normal.”
By August, five months into the pandemic, I’d gotten into the swing of the “new normal.” I did all of my interviews by phone, darting out with a mask, gloves and lots of hand sanitizer when I needed to in order to get photos. I was glad to write some “happy” stories — downtown the Wong Family opened a new restaurant, the Union, featuring a stunning mural painted by Forest Wong, 17; Oroville High got a new varsity basketball coach; and the State Theatre restoration project was well underway.
In mid-August wildfire season started with a vengeance. The Potter Fire ignited on Aug. 18. The day before the Bear Fire started in Plumas National Forest. We never thought the Bear Fire would come close to the communities we covered, and at home I was too busy packing to evacuate from the Potter Fire to really pay any attention to what was happening “so far away.” Twenty-two days later the Bear Fire crossed into Butte County and evacuation orders were issued for Berry Creek, the first place I lived when I moved to Butte County from Oakland 31 years ago.
By Sept. 9, Berry Creek was leveled. I’d evacuated my mom to our home and we were busy packing for evacuation, again, busy running sprinklers 24/7, busy monitoring the falling ash — some of which was still lit as floated down onto our property and home.
As a correspondent it’s rarely my job to cover breaking news so while what was to become the sixth largest fire in the state’s modern history and the deadliest fire of the 2020 wildfire season raged around us, I supported the staff writers and photographers tasked with the hard, hot, dirty, often dangerous and sometimes scary job of covering the blaze. With COVID-19 restrictions in place there was no public place for reporters to take a break, get a bite to eat (at really odd hours), recharge batteries or remotely file their stories. So, I kept my home open and COVID-19 compliant clean 24/7 serving as satellite office and diner for my colleagues.
While the fire raged and smoke threatened to choke us all, more than 100 unmasked small business owners along with elected local and state officials met at Mike’s Grande Burger to protest another round of virus mandated business closures. It was a confronting story, a conflicting story for me to cover. I completely understood their anger over being told to shutter their businesses, again, and their fear that they could very well lose their businesses, but what I didn’t understand was how closures, mask wearing, social distancing were, in their view, political, not public health issues. I wrote the story and a follow-up story to it straight, no commentary. That’s how the stories should be written, and that’s how the people of this community expect me to write them. They trust me to leave my opinions for my weekly column, and to the very best of my ability I work not to betray that trust.
In October the fire was still burning, the Butte County Crop report was issued, Downtown Oroville was hosting a scarecrow contest and safety guidelines for celebrating Halloween were being issued. I was exhausted from the smoke and all things COVID.
The air was clear by November but the heat of the elections was on us; the counties COVID cases and deaths started to increase exponentially; the YMCA closed all programs and services except childcare; fundraisers for fire victims continued; the Community Emergency Response Team was well established with 26 trained volunteers; Father’s House Church opened the Lights of Hope Christmas Village while downtown businesses improvised and adjusted to keep holiday traditions alive.
On Dec. 3, the North Complex fires were 100-percent contained and I wrote a memorial for Jake Albright, one of the 16 victims who lost his life to the inferno when it burned through Feather Falls. December was also the month when news came that local hospitals would be receiving the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccines. Though there was some discrepancy about exactly when Oroville Hospital would be receiving its first 3,200 doses this was the first “glimmer of hope” COVID story I got to write. And, I was thankful.