That Friday, I called my editor and told him I wasn’t too optimistic. The fires were getting worse, I told him, and they were affecting the very region where the shooting had happened. Not only would the fires physically prevent me from reporting on the scene, but if officials called for an evacuation, I wouldn’t even have people to talk to. What’s more, because of the fires, internet and phone service in certain regions was damaged.
“Oh, you’ll get the story, no problem! It’ll be a great story,” my editor replied, displaying confidence that I sure wasn’t feeling.
“Well, I’ll try my best,” I said, and hung up.
I had a six-hour drive ahead of me to continue freaking out and plotting ways to produce the story. That’s when a voice in my head reminded me, “Hey, remember when you were reporting on men with HIV/AIDS, and you had no idea who would be willing to talk to you, but you prayed about it and somehow God made things happen? Remember when you spent two months in Southeast Asia, feeling like a fool on a wild-goose chase, and God directed you to meet all these wonderful people and stories? Remember all those other times when God provided just what you needed to make a story work? Why don’t you … I don’t know … pray?”
So I did, and when I returned home to LA that night, I immediately went to work planning a contact list and blasting out emails. One contact I emailed was a campus ministry pastor at Pepperdine University, which had lost one of its students to the shooting and was now watching the Woolsey Fire devour the hills surrounding its campus in Malibu. That pastor was the only person who responded to my meet-up request, and I invited myself to his Sunday morning service on campus.
Then early Sunday morning, the pastor sent me an email encouraging me to stay home—the Santa Ana winds were picking up and may blow for days, he wrote, and that meant the flames were spreading: “With the fires and all, you may not be able to get here—but more importantly, if you do, you might be stuck and unable to get home.”
When I read that email, I was already heading toward Malibu with a big cup of coffee, so I decided to stick to my original plans. I reckoned that if I got stuck because of the fires, that itself could be a story.
It was eerie driving up the Pacific Coast Highway: The air was thick with smoke and dust, the ocean waves were churning and crashing, and the streets were almost completely empty except for a few crazy individuals who thought it was a fine idea to go jogging in the smog. As I left Santa Monica to head toward Malibu, clusters of police cars blocked the highway. With my press pass, I was able to pass through one row of LAPD officers, but half a mile up the highway, the California Highway Patrol stopped me and turned me back.
I pouted for a second, then shrugged: God closes one door, He’ll open another. I decided to head to Thousand Oaks to visit the Borderline Bar & Grill, where the shooting had happened. I didn’t know what to expect, but assumed I’d perhaps meet a few residents who might be able to tell me how the local community was processing its grief. Turns out, that trip was my “journalist’s jackpot.”