The words came over the radio set. “Breaking, Williams Lake is now under an evacuation order.” 

I was at my grandmother’s house in the Interior of B.C. and had just gotten up from my computer to take a short break. 

“All residents are being asked to leave immediately and take Highway 97 southwards, as the road is closed north of town.”

It was 2017, and wildfires were raging in the heart of British Columbia. I was working remotely as a reporter for the paper in 100 Mile House, a town just 100 km south of Williams Lake that had been evacuated due to a wildfire the week before. 

It meant my break was over and I needed to go back to work. But it also meant that I needed to leave the town myself.

Once my story was filed — telling those online the same thing the radio had just told me — my grandmother and I packed into our vehicles and joined the line of cars streaming out of Williams Lake. As we drove down the highway, CBC Radio began an emergency broadcast, calling out to cars ahead of us to let us know what to expect, and talking with officials back in Williams Lake about what was happening behind us. It was reassuring to have a familiar voice on the radio accompany me as I made the long drive, not sure of when I’d return and what I’d be coming back to — or even what I would see when we reached our destination. 

That month I worked harder than I had ever worked before and after. 


But during that summer, as communities were evacuated and people were forced out of their homes — in many ways the opposite of what we’re seeing during the COVID-19 pandemic — I learned just how important it was to have local journalists, and local news sources. 


Honestly, it was then that I really realized the true value of community news. I had been working as a community reporter for just six months, and arguably was still learning the ropes. And I won’t lie — working in community news while living in my hometown was not exactly my dream job. 

But during that summer, as communities were evacuated and people were forced out of their homes — in many ways the opposite of what we’re seeing during the COVID-19 pandemic — I learned just how important it was to have local journalists, and local news sources. 

Everyone had questions. Where exactly was the fire? What were the weather conditions? What had changed overnight? What businesses were open? Where could you find bread and milk? What were people who had stayed seeing? How did you claim your Red Cross support cheque? Where was the emergency shelter? 

Each added drop of information was an extra drop of reassurance. These drops of reassurance are echoed today. 

“How many COVID-19 cases are there in my community? Where is there an outbreak? What regulations have changed? What businesses are open? Where can I find flour and toilet paper? What is it like for nurses? Doctors? How do you claim your CERB support? Where can I get tested?

Even if the news was bad, it meant you weren’t left wondering. 

Some days, I simply called every store open in the remote cabin communities that weren’t evacuated, but that were also cut off, to see if they had bread and when their next shipment was expected. I checked in with Fire Information Officers and local politicians daily to see when the situation was going to change, or what it looked like at that exact time on that particular day . Or I talked to people who were doing extraordinary things to help their communities: volunteers cooking pancake breakfasts, people who had donated truckloads of supplies (including toilet paper) to locals whose houses had burned, ranchers who had stayed behind the firelines to protect their and their neighbours’ houses, and even dog owners, whose dogs had protected their sheep and guided them to water despite the fire raging around them. 

Bigger news stations, national ones, felt like they were covering the wildfires for people who were just watching, important, but not meant for us. The local reporters were telling people which roads they can use, what block precisely was being evacuated, when school could reopen. 

It was scary. It was exhilarating. It was exhausting. 

It was important. 

And it was so important to people who were looking for sources of news they could trust amid all the rumours circulating on Facebook.

For that they looked to us — and to the local radio station. 


Everyday he reported on what he was seeing. If he was still there, the community was still there. And that was reassuring to everyone. 


Later, I interviewed a local broadcaster in 100 Mile House. He had disobeyed the local evacuation order, and stayed in the community. He slept at the radio station, and locals (who were officially allowed to be in the community) brought him food.

Everyday he reported on what he was seeing. If he was still there, the community was still there. And that was reassuring to everyone. 

I no longer work in community news. And sometimes I miss it. I’m watching my former colleagues report on the COVID-19 pandemic day-in and day-out, often with little good news to share. I’m also seeing many laid off as this crisis hits economies hard and ad-based newspaper revenue disappears — even as good journalism is more important than ever. 

At the same time I’m hopeful. I’m watching my current colleagues at Farm Radio International dig in their heels and go to work. I’m talking with broadcasters in Africa who are themselves sleeping at the office despite curfews to make sure they get key information out there. 

Broadcasters in Africa have a huge task right now. For many, they are the only source of news to rural communities. They have a responsibility to get information about the coronavirus out quickly, in ways rural people can understand, and to combat the myths that spread everywhere. They also need to be able to find ways to do this that allow them to stay safe themselves. 

My colleagues are hard at work doing all that. And it’s amazing. 

Some are dispelling myths they see shared around. Others are preparing information packets and emergency broadcasting guides so that broadcasters who don’t have formal training have resources to use. Still others are working hard at finding out how we can adjust our programming so that the same issues that rural communities in Africa face and will continue to face are not forgotten: programs on gender, on food security, and on health are being changed to address current COVID-19 issues, but also to continue to provide support on those issues in local languages and understandable ways. 

Local journalists know the needs of their communities as well as anyone. They are responding to local questions. They are creating programming for their families, their friends and their communities, that addresses their reality, in their own language, by people who live in the communities themselves.

I’m always impressed. As I learned in 2017, and am seeing again now, local broadcasters and journalists during emergencies are an essential service. And the more support we can give them during this time the better. 

To all the broadcasters and journalists around the world working to cover COVID-19 for your communities: I see you. Your work matters so much. Please stay safe. And thank you.


About the author
Tara Sprickerhoff works as a communications officer for Farm Radio International. With a background in journalism, storytelling is close to Tara’s heart. Her specialties: covering orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, wildfires, and uncovering the whimsy in the everyday.

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