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Dialed In

Amid the chaos of the fires, KSRO became the voice of Sonoma County

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By 3am, the station was getting crowded, as many of KSRO's employees were evacuated. No one knew how long they would be safe, because the studio is located at the mouth of Bennett Valley, an area that would later be evacuated. O'Shea fled his Rincon Valley home and arrived at the station about 3:15am. He took a photograph from the station's parking lot that showed how close the fire was. During one broadcast in the first week of the fires, Jaxon had to dash out to get his dogs when evacuation of his Bennett Valley neighborhood was announced.

In the early days of the fire, there was no time to plan the broadcasts because there was so much happening, so much news to report. "It was just, keep it going and keep talking to people," O'Shea says. He adds that Kerrigan was the best talker of all.

"I cannot offer any higher accolades to anybody," O'Shea says. "She was our quarterback."

Kerrigan has only been the news anchor at KSRO for a year, but she clearly rose to the occasion.

"I'm old-school radio," she says. "I think that's why radio stations were created: to be of service to their community, and this is the perfect example of it."

DeWald, during the long hours in the studio (which he calls a "a 30-by-30 box"), worked to maintain mental focus. He likens his job of producer to that of a conductor.

THE CONDUCTOR  KSRO producer Mike DeWald worked with news anchors and newsroom staff to maintain calm on the air.
  • THE CONDUCTOR KSRO producer Mike DeWald worked with news anchors and newsroom staff to maintain calm on the air.

"Whoever is on the air plays off of me. I have to keep calm as a middle point between things happening in the newsroom and things happening on the air. Because if that chain breaks, then the sound on air becomes more chaotic."

And chaos is not what people needed to hear. Local and state officials have been profuse in their appreciation of KSRO's coverage.

"I want to thank KSRO for keeping the community apprised from top to bottom," said State Sen. Bill Dodd in an interview on Monday with Kerrigan.

Like Kerrigan, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano became a household name in the wake of the fire and a regular on KSRO.

"They did quite the job," he said. "They just kept covering everything and talking to everybody."

In a disaster, cell phone and internet service can be unreliable. But not radio, he said.

"It's old technology and it works great."

While he spent most of his time in the studio, DeWald went to Coffey Park the fourth day of the fires to report from the field, a first for him. The photographs he saw and interviews he heard did not prepare him for the devastation.

"When you actually stand in the center of Coffey Park," DeWald says, "you see it's just pieces of everyone's life sitting in front of you in this area of desolation. To actually stand there and see it was just a really heavy moment."

As the fire entered its second week, staff shifts began to normalize. DeWald was able to take time off to see a Shark's game. Marques visited a friend in Petaluma and played Legos with her four-year-old daughter, a welcome change of pace. As of Friday, Kerrigan had not had a day off, but she was planning a break.

Even on her time off, Marques says she was still texting DeWald about the fire, processing what she'd seen and heard. "You're terrified and you can't really rest."

During her second day on the job, the events of the fire got to her.

"I didn't cry the first day," Marques says, "but I did have to stop a couple of times the second day to just cry, and I couldn't be on the air because it was awful. We were finding out how many people had died."

When he first got home, DeWald said he needed time to decompress and reflect on what he had seen and heard.

"It weighs on you so much, but in the heat of it, it doesn't hit you. But in the quiet by yourself, all these things you've heard come back to you. It's a powerful thing."

THE VETERAN  Pat Kerrigan fled fire around her Kenwood home and headed straight to the studio to report on the growing disaster.
  • THE VETERAN Pat Kerrigan fled fire around her Kenwood home and headed straight to the studio to report on the growing disaster.

As firefighters gained control of the blazes last week, Santa Rosa residents expressed their appreciation to Cal Fire, the Santa Rosa Fire Department, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office, PG&E—and KSRO. Banners were hung from freeway overpasses and placards went up on light poles. The praise is not something Marques is comfortable with, especially since there are people still unaccounted for. "I don't feel that's appropriate. We were just doing our job."

DeWald was taken aback by the banners.

"We don't belong with those names. We weren't running into the fires, but seeing that did choke me up a little bit. It made me realize what we did had an impact."

For Kerrigan, who has been a Sonoma County broadcaster since 1980, she appreciates the praise but hasn't been able to pay much attention to it. She just returned home home last week.

"I'm honored by it," she says. "I hope one day to be able to sit down with all of that, but I don't know when it will be."

The fires are all but out as the cleanup and long road to recovery begins. I knew things were getting back to normal when I tuned into KSRO last week and Coast to Coast was back on air. The show focused on some apparently compelling photos of an alien that had crash-landed in Roswell, Ariz., in 1947. Lamentably, the bilious Laura Ingraham is back on the air, too, a study in contrast to the goodwill on display in the North Bay. Syndicated programming had been suspended during the early days of the fire.

NEWS CREW KSRO's fire coverage was a group effort. From left Michelle Marques, Heather Black, Mike DeWald, Steve Jaxon, Tyson Engel, Steve Garner, and Alex Stone. - CATHY SLACK
  • Cathy Slack
  • NEWS CREW KSRO's fire coverage was a group effort. From left Michelle Marques, Heather Black, Mike DeWald, Steve Jaxon, Tyson Engel, Steve Garner, and Alex Stone.

Monday, I heard a commercial from a prospecting law firm looking to sign up clients interested in suing PG&E, even though the cause of the fires has yet to be determined. Life goes on. But like the fire, KSRO's role won't soon be forgotten.

"The story was and is maybe the biggest thing that will ever happen to us as individuals and a community," Kerrigan says. "It's been the kind of radio people like me dream of—except for the circumstance of it.

"If it weren't for all this death and destruction it would be a great couple of weeks of radio."

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