From the Ashes: Alum’s Coverage of Wine Country Fires Earns Highest Award in American Journalism
Randi Rossmann has made a career of covering some of the most grueling, ghastly, and demanding stories in the Sonoma Valley.
For the better part of 37 years, she’s reported on breaking news and law enforcement for The Press Democrat, including the 1989 Ramon Salcido murders, the 1993 Polly Klaas kidnapping and murder, and far too many vehicle fatalities to count.
On October 2, 2017, Rossmann (Information and Communication Studies, ’81) was tasked with tracking down Sonoma County residents who experienced the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival shooting in Las Vegas, which left 58 dead and more than 850 people injured the night before. Her 12-hour day covering the worst mass shooting in modern United States history was her first day back from vacation.
The following Sunday, October 8, was hot and windy in Santa Rosa, conditions that gave the seasoned reporter pause.
“I said to my husband, ‘Tomorrow’s going to be a fire day. But at least it won’t be as bad as last Monday,’” she said, referring to her coverage of the Las Vegas shooting. “But you never know.”
Little could she have imagined how accurate her foreshadowing would be.
That night, multiple fires ignited in the Sonoma Valley, whipped by high winds and ultimately forming one giant volatile firestorm. The Tubbs Fire and Nuns Fire (among others) ravaged the Sonoma Valley, and when fully contained weeks later, they’d churned through more than 91,000 acres, claimed 24 lives, and destroyed nearly 7,000 structures. The Tubbs Fire alone consumed more than 2,800 homes in Santa Rosa and would hold the title of the most destructive fire in California history until Butte County’s Camp Fire 13 months later.
When Rossmann walked into the The Press Democrat newsroom the next morning, breaking coverage by photographers and reporters was already online. She quickly got to work, contacting fire and safety personnel, seeking updates from around the valley, and reporting on the catastrophic loss.
“It was the start of a two-week, nonstop run of days that went from 12 to 16 hours of endless, endless reporting,” Rossmann said.
For the next few weeks, The Press Democrat team posted continuous updates online, and Rossmann assumed the role of field marshal, directing photographers and other reporters to sources and story locations.
“There was never an end to what needed updating, driven by the need to provide updates to readers,” she said. “I kicked us off in the morning, and many times they had me stay until midnight to get the final version online.”
As the fire-scarred region started the recovery process, The Press Democrat began to get recognized for its exhaustive and fearless fire coverage. The newspaper captured the top prize in the California News Publishers Association’s breaking news awards and was a finalist in the Scripps Howard Awards. Rossman and others humbly hoped they had a chance at the highest award in American journalism—the Pulitzer Prize.
This June, the call came. The newsroom erupted in celebration with the announcement the Pulitzer was theirs.
“It was utter shock and pride and lots of tears,” Rossmann said.
Elation and pride soon mingled with survivor’s guilt.
“It was a lot of, ‘Holy cow, we won this award on the back of the worst disaster in our home.’ And it felt kind of terrible,” she said. “Twenty-four people died, and we won an award. Five thousand homes lost? Great, we won an award. We immediately felt guilty.”
Rossmann understands, though, that she and her colleagues did the newspaper’s readers a tremendous service through their words and photos—even if it meant telling stories that were uncomfortable and painful for hours and days on end.
“That’s the beauty of this job. You’re not here for the money, you’re definitely not here for the benefits, and you really have to care about the job,” Rossmann said. “You really have to love journalism, it has to be a calling.”
Rossmann was perhaps destined to work at The Press Democrat. She’s a Santa Rosa native, her father read news on the radio for KSRO, and she toured the newspaper facility in elementary school with her Girl Scout troop.
“I remember thinking it would be kind of a cool place to work,” she said.
After enjoying journalism classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, she transferred to Chico State and became more involved, working as a reporter and managing editor for The Orion. In the classroom, Rossmann gleaned valuable lessons from her journalism and communications professors, particularly Richard Ek, who shared his own practical knowledge and real-life experience.
“It was really basic stuff,” she said. “It was interviews, how to handle a difficult interview.”
These fundamental elements have become part of Rossmann’s reporter DNA, as important as her phone recorder and source list, lessons that served her well working the breaking news and crime beats—and in covering the fire’s harrowing devastation.
“You have to understand human nature. You have to be patient, you have to understand the way the world works and the way people’s jobs work, and you have to be a good listener,” she said. “You need to get people to trust you.”
One year after the Tubbs Fire raked through Sonoma County, The Press Democrat marked the anniversary with a week-long string of updates, including stories of survival, grief, and rebuilding. The revisiting, Rossmann said, was not easy.
“We’re pretty emotional around here … looking back on how difficult that was with all the loss,” she said at the time. “Several of us are feeling that emotion of what we went through and what the county went through.”
Yet, she continues with what her profession demands: reporting on life across Sonoma County for the newspaper’s readership. Rossmann said the journalism industry remains “hugely important” and needs more fearless reporters with insatiable curiosity. And as long as newsworthy events happen, the public will continue to depend on reporters to tell the stories.
“Often as I drive into work, I have this thought in my head, ‘Today, I could write a really great story. Maybe yesterday I didn’t do that and didn’t reach the people I needed to. But today, I have a chance to craft something better. I have a chance to pull together a story that I’m really proud of,’” she said. “You always have that opportunity to do better than the last day, and to learn more.”