The fire that proved local news coverage is garbage

Once upon a time, as the French would say, “il etait une fois…” I was a newspaper reporter. It’s a rare breed of professional that existed before the internet made the job so much easier, before the best news coverage was the team who did it most completely and factually, not the people who got it to their public first. So much “news” is a person standing around reporting what they see, versus doing the research to tell the story. We’ve lost sight of the full story.

This morning, as my alarm went off at 6 a.m., I read some posts on social media that read that people all over the Lehigh Valley were seeing (and posting their views of) a fire in tiny West Easton, a borough nestled among Easton proper, Wilson borough and miniscule Glendon, all part of the 18042 zip code.

I put on my glasses, as dawn threatened to break, and I thought about how bright the sky had seemed when I woke about 40 minutes before my alarm and went back to sleep. With my glasses secure on my face, I saw black smoke and orange glow billowing in the distance.

I walked to my sun porch and surveyed the scene before returning to my lap top to seek reputable news coverage. WFMZ was the only local media outlet who had any coverage of the three alarm fire (which if you know the area, it logically has to be a three alarm fire because West Easton has, depending on the website and the census attributed, about 1200 residents. That’s according to the 2010 census, and other less easily confirmed statistics credited to 2019 don’t seem too different.

So, West Easton has what is common in small communities around Pennsylvania– a volunteer fire department. With fire of this visible magnitude, even without getting the other facts: that it’s an industrial fire, that it might include propane or chemicals, it threatens multiple buildings, it is near the river, etc… (This is also a town that has disbanded and reinstated their police department to save money.) They are obviously going to get assistance from the two professional fire companies near the site.

Both Wilson Borough and Easton City have professional fire stations about a mile away.

This is an expanded version of the original news coverage produced by WFMZ, and they did a decent job. Probably because they are the only local media with a morning show, so they had bodies in the newsroom at 5 a.m. No one else locally does.

Now, I had an 8 a.m. appointment on the other end of the valley. So I called up Google maps to see what businesses were in the area reported by WFMZ. They had mentioned “large warehouse” and “Main Street and Lehigh Drive.” That’s about all the info you need to pinpoint a location in a town as small as West Easton.

The map suggest that the warehouse complex itself contains several businesses: Johnson Motor Lines, Sandt Honey, Lehigh Custom Components and Ferocity Metal. A different map shows Latro Cellular Forensics Lab and Xtreme Custom Coatings.

But the next news “update” was from the new news organization,, which does not have a print operation, only online, but has recycled many familiar faces from the Valley’s daily print journalism past. I found this post around 7 a.m.– two hours after the fire started– and much of the so-called reporting focused on what casual observers had posted on Facebook and other social media sites.

Speaking of social media sites… There are reports of hazmat crews, exploding propane tanks, air quality issues and, of course, parents terrified to send their kids to school both in the community where the fire is burning (Wilson Area School District) and the one next door (Easton Area School District). There were also unconfirmed reports of fire hydrant failures in West Easton (which, I can’t imagine they have many of them in that general area to start with) and rumors that firefighters had to rely on water from the Lehigh River and pumper trucks from various area fire departments.

From the bevvy of amateur drone and street photography from the fire that I have seen, I have noticed firefighters using river water on the fire, but regardless of the status of the fire hydrants, this makes sense.

Also around 7 a.m., a news helicopter appeared above my house. I assumed, correctly, that it was a news helicopter because 1. it retreated from the smoke instead of going deeper into it to fight the fire. I also guessed it was from Philadelphia, about 60 miles away, because none of our news agencies have the resources for a helicopter. Not in today’s world. It appears that original helicopter was from CBS, followed by two news helicopters for the lunch broadcast. One of which was ABC. Seriously? A fire in a small town in Northampton County warrants this much attention?

The Morning Call, who used to employ me as a print community reporter for its weekly paper and allowed me to freelance for the daily, followed with their piece by 9 a.m. Again, no real news added to the situation, they all appeared to be recycling each others’ coverage.

By the time I returned from my appointment around 9:30 a.m., the view from route 78 suggested that the fire had blanketed the county in a layer of smoke and ash, but the color had already started to pale. In the photo, taken at the route 33 exist, the plume on the right is the smoke, and one can see it traversing the nearby municipalities.

The electricity is out for a wide range of people, creating a lack of traffic lights in busy 25th Street intersections, like by the Aldi and Lidl. It looks like Freemansburg Avenue may be the dividing line for those with power versus those without. And, for the record, the average local driver seems to have forgotten that busy intersections with no signal become a four-way stop. But what I witnessed was a great big game of chicken.

I haven’t called any mayors, or police departments, or fire departments. And I didn’t attempt to get to the scene. Which are all things I would do if I were still a reporter. And I’d call council members if I had to.

And the web reveals that Latro is a lab that helps law enforcement extract data from cell phones. Sandts sells multiple varieties of local honey. According to the Federal Carrier Motor Safety Administration, Johnson carries a little bit of everything and has an unblemished safety record. Ferocity Metal’s Facebook page calls them a metal supplier, though the pictures imply the business is small and specializes in artistic, individualized pieces. Xtreme Custom Coatings is a powder coating business with many positive Google reviews.

It’s now 12:30 p.m. The helicopters have departed and the skies look normal, even if the air does have a strange ash smell to it.

Kudos to the Express-Times for putting a real reporter on the story.

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