Johnson wins Emmy for Erskine coverage

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Johnson wins Emmy for Erskine coverageWhile the marks of the Erskine fire are still heavily felt by the residents and responders to the most devastating blaze in Kern County history, the vivid reporting of David Johnson captured the scene for countless viewers to bear witness to their story.

Almost exactly a year after the incident, the journalist, public safety advocate and honorary first-responder learned that the Television Academy of Arts and Science has recognized the outstanding quality of his work with an Emmy Award.

“It is a well-deserved honor that reflects your amazing work that hectic day,” Michael Trihey, news director of KGET TV 17 in Bakersfield wrote to Johnson. The station shares the award, although Johnson will receive his own statue.

“It was the biggest story many of us will cover in our entire careers, and your coverage was exceptional.”

On June 23, 2016, a worn electrical line strung between two buildings in Lake Isabella apparently created a spark in the drought-afflicted brush, rapidly spreading to hundreds of homes and businesses and displacing countless residents. Although the cause would not be identified for many months to come, Kern County officials reported early on that it was the fastest-moving fire they had ever seen.

Johnson happened to be the first member of the media to respond on the scene, capturing the horror and tragedy of the event while supporting the efforts of emergency responders to save lives and property.

“I believe the Erskine fire pretty much impacted anyone who witnessed it in the same way,” he said. “We were all devastated. To see so many peoples’ lives go up in flames was horrific. I can only imagine how the victims feel. Actually, I can’t. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose your grandmother’s wedding ring, your family pictures, your family pet — and, it goes without saying, the two people who lost their lives in the fire.

“Sure, as journalists, we all want to get ‘the scoop’ on a story. But the implications of doing so can have some side effects. I use the word ‘some’ lightly. From first responder to news gatherers to victims, we were all affected in a major way. There is no way to cover something like this and then say at the end of it all that it was ‘just another story.’ It’s not.

“The video should take you there, where I happened to end up, but there’s nothing like witnessing it first hand. It’s certainly an experience I’ll never forget, nor will anyone else who witnessed it.”

Johnson entered video news business in 1986, shortly after his daughter, Lindsey, was born. “Video cameras were fairly expensive, but you could rent them for $25 a day.” However, he and his family opted to spring for a camera in order to record Lindsey’s first Christmas and send the recording home to their family in Ridgecrest.

As it turned out, that Christmas Day would also be the first in Johnson’s new career. After hearing sirens, he followed them to the scene of a house fire. A recently started “News Hawk” campaign soliciting video from viewers enabled Johnson to sell his video to a local station for $25. He found that he enjoyed the energy of the television newsroom and kept at it.

More than 30 years later, he has developed relationships with 13 stations that have purchased his work. He said that he typically contributes a story every two or three months to L.A. stations, with Bakersfield stations picking up his work once or twice a month.

His Erskine work was recently featured on “60 Minutes,” which dedicated a segment to the one-year anniversary of the fire.

“They are world wide, but that wasn’t my first trip around the globe,” he said. Back in the 1990s, he shot the rescue of two boys in Cayucos. Stranded 200 yards from the shore, the boys managed to cling to a rock until a lifeguard could reach them. “That video was picked up by Real TV, and eventually by ‘Great Escapes’ in Australia.”

In addition to his high visibility in the media, his work has been used for training and education by agencies such as Cal Fire and BLM. The National Weather Service has also recognized him for critical contributions. “That’s a big one to me, because my work might contribute to helping save lives.”

“Dave’s footage was amazing,” said Trihey. “There’s just no other word for it. As this monster fire swept over hill after hill and devoured one neighborhood after another, Dave was in the middle of it all. He was the first journalist there, and during the most critical hours of the fire’s spread, he was the only journalist there. He met that challenge very well.”

Johnson’s reflection upon the incident that yielded his Emmy, however, evokes mostly a concern for the safety of the public. “The fact that I’ve received an Emmy is not as important to me as what I hope [viewers] will get out of it. I don’t know what the criteria is for judging, but I would guess the best word would be ‘impact.’

“So mostly I hope, in a way, that my work and achievements have done that. The best feeling you can walk away with is knowing you made a difference. And I hope in some small way to do that.”

He urged homeowners to keep their properties maintained with property easements to protect from fire, and said that properties that are non-compliant put everyone at risk.

“Some might think it to be not so good to tell on your neighbor, but if there is a problem it should be addressed not only to save you, but your neighbors as well.”

He also encouraged people to watch the piece on Erskine, still available for viewing on the “60 Minutes” website.

“It’s my hope that people will get the message. I never want to cover anything like this again. The Emmy doesn’t make up for everyone who suffered that day. The award really should go to them for their perseverance.”

Pictured: David Johnson, with a glove signed by the firefighters he assisted during the Erskine incident. -- Photo by Chet Steel

Story First Published: 2017-06-30