DENVER (AP) — Reporters covering northern Colorado's massive wildfire were kept out of areas that have been evacuated for 11 days — an unusual restriction even for this state, where local officials have extensive powers at fire scenes and journalists are usually kept miles from the flames.
In Nevada, a newspaper photographer covering a brush fire this week was roughed up, handcuffed and cited for obstruction, his editor said. The newspaper is preparing a formal complaint.
Tension between news organizations and authorities is commonplace during emergencies, including wildfires in the drought-stricken West. But in many cases, journalists seeking to tell firefighters' and victims' stories face strict controls on the flow of information.
Law enforcement holds the upper hand, said Kelly McBride, who studies journalism ethics.
"Most of the time public officials are eager to show they are upholding their duty, so they grant journalists some kind of access," said McBride, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education foundation. "But there's nothing that says they have to grant journalists access."
Tim Dunn, photo editor of the Reno Gazette-Journal, was covering a grass fire that destroyed two homes in Sun Valley when Washoe County deputies detained him in handcuffs Monday, said Beryl Love, the newspaper's executive editor.
Love told The Associated Press Dunn was complying with a deputy's directions to move when he was forced to the ground and his face pushed into some gravel.
Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, said he was outraged by the incident.
"There are occasionally disagreements over where people should be and how much access there is, but I've never heard of a deputy actually beating up a photographer," he said.
The sheriff's department confirmed Dunn was detained and cited but declined to comment further.
In Colorado, Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith cited safety reasons and residents' privacy in keeping reporters, TV camera crews and still photographers out of the High Park Fire evacuation zone until residents see their homes first.
"Our philosophy is the citizens need to see the damage and destruction before the general public," said Nick Christensen, executive officer for the sheriff's department.
The sheriff's department announced it would allow journalists into part of the evacuated area Wednesday afternoon.
Sheriff's spokesman John Schulz said residents had been allowed to return to the area a few days ago. He said media pressure wasn't a factor in the decision.
"That's typically not how the sheriff makes decisions," Schulz said. "He puts the citizens first and then the local media."
Smith also has barred reporters from briefings he gives to the evacuated residents. At some of these meetings, residents are told the bad news that their houses have burned down.
Journalists say the Colorado restrictions are too strict and hurt their ability to report.
"I'm sympathetic to their desire to help the victim," said Joey Bunch, a reporter for The Denver Post. "I'm not sympathetic to their desire to control what's going on."
Bunch, a 27-year-veteran who has covered numerous natural disasters, said the Larimer sheriff's restrictions are "the most concerted effort I've seen to get between the press and the victims."
At some previous wildfires in Colorado and in other states, authorities have escorted news media into evacuation zones before residents or the general public was allowed in, sometimes while the fire is still active.
With the current fire, "They're robbing the victims of the chance to tell their story," Bunch said. "The larger public isn't being able to fully appreciate the size of the fire and the size of the tragedy because the story isn't being told."
Fire management teams routinely try to get journalists safe access to fires to get the news out, said Mike Ferris, a public information officer for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
"Generally, I'll do everything I can to get you access to get your story," he said.
Rules for media access vary from state to state and even from wildfire to wildfire. In California, state law allows news organizations virtually unfettered access to fires. Other states leave the decisions up to the agency responsible for the land involved.
In Arizona, the incident commander in charge of the firefighting effort has the final say. News personnel must have an escort. Utah and Idaho have no laws restricting or guaranteeing access but officials usually work with news organizations.
In Colorado, state law puts the county sheriff in charge of fires on state and private land in unincorporated areas if the fire exceeds the capacity of a single fire department, officials said.
If a Colorado sheriff asks the National Interagency Fire Center to dispatch an incident management team to a fire, the sheriff decides what responsibilities to delegate to the team. In Larimer County's case, Sheriff Smith retained responsibility over media access.
The fire has destroyed at least 189 homes — the worst wildfire property destruction in Colorado history — and blackened 100 square miles since it was sparked by lightning June 9.
In one incident, the sheriff's department withheld for 24 hours a video recording, made by a fire official inside the evacuation zone using an NBC News camera and tape. NBC News producer Jack Chesnutt said he thought he would get the tape back immediately to share with other news outlets.
Christensen, the sheriff's executive officer, said the department always intended to show the video to evacuated residents before returning it.
"These are not the conditions that I thought we had agreed to when we handed them the camera," Chesnutt said. He called the High Park Fire coverage restrictions "unprecedented."
Evacuated residents expressed mixed feelings about the media, saying they want their privacy respected but also want news coverage of the fire and its aftermath.
"I have gotten more information, and I'm sure some of it is misinformation, through the media than I have through the sheriff and through the authorities," said Jeff Corum, whose home was destroyed.
But, he added, "there's really not any of us that want to sit around and talk" about losses. "We're private people, so it's nobody's (expletive) business, pardon my language."
Tom Knab, who was evacuated but has been told his house is still standing, expressed wariness about the restrictions. But he said he would be angry if his house and been destroyed and a news crew got to see it before he did.
"This is a local community. This isn't the White House burning," Knab said.
Associated Press Writers Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho, Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Ariz., Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nev., contributed to this report.
Gila National Forest Fire
This image provided by the U.S. Forest Service shows a May 29, 2012 photo, of the massive blaze in the Gila National Forest is seen from Cliff, N.M. Fire officials said Wednesday the wildfire has burned more than 265 square miles has become the largest fire in New Mexico history. (AP Photo/U.S. Forest Service)
Gila National Forest Fire
In this Tuesday, May 29, 2012 photo provided by the U.S. Forest Service, a firefighter walks along a burn out line as part of an effort to contain the nation's largest wildfire in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. More than 1,200 firefighters are battling the blaze that has charred 340 square miles, or 218,000 acres, of terrain in the rugged mountains and canyons of southwestern New Mexico. (AP Photo/U.S. Forest Service, Mark Pater)
Little Bear Fire
Smoke billows from the Little Bear fire in southeastern New Mexico near Ruidoso, Saturday, June 9, 2012. Spanning only a few acres on Wednesday, the Little Bear fire began to grow Friday as spot fires formed outside established fire lines due to windy conditions. By Saturday morning, about 10,000 acres had been charred northwest of the mountain community of Ruidoso. (AP Photo/Roswell Daily Record, Mark Wilson)
Luce County, MI Fire
In this Saturday, May 26, 2012 photo provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, a wildfire burns in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The fire that began last week has burned 95 structures, with a third of them being homes or cabins. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources said Monday, May 28, 2012, that the Duck Lake Fire has burned more than 22,000 acres, or 34 square miles, in Luce County. (AP Photo/Michigan Department of Natural Resources)
San Bernardino Fire
Firefighter Scott Abraham, of the San Bernardino County Fire Department, sprays water as his crew tries to keep the fire from crossing a San Diego County road Friday, May 25, 2012, near Julian, Calif. The blaze broke out Thursday afternoon east of Julian near Banner Grade. About 100 homes were temporarily evacuated in the Shelter Valley area along Highway 78 during the early stages of the fire but that order was lifted late Thursday. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
CORRECTS DATE - Firefighters battle a wind-driven fire that has destroyed at least two homes and a number of outbuildings in Topaz Ranch Estates, south of Gardnerville, Nev., on Tuesday, May 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)
Fire burns through trees on the Hewlett wildfire in the Poudre Canyon northwest of Fort Collins, Colo., on Thursday, May 17, 2012. More than 50 homes were evacuated on Thursday. The fire has grown from 1.5 square miles to 8 square miles in the last day as erratic wind gusts of up to 50 mph moved into the area fueled by thunderstorms that didn
Smoke from the wild fire can be seen from Spring Valley as the sun goes down and firefighters try to protect the town of Crown King Wednesday, May 16, 2012 in Crown King, Ariz. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Tom Tingle) MARICOPA COUNTY OUT; MAGS OUT; NO SALES
The Gladiator Fire burns in the Bradshaw Mountains in Prescott National Forest, Ariz. on Wednesday, May 16, 2012. Authorities are worried that flames from the Gladiator Fire will get past a fire line that's about a mile west of the historic mining town of Crown King, fire incident spokeswoman Loretta Benavidez said Tuesday night. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, David Wallace) MARICOPA COUNTY OUT; MAGS OUT; NO SALES
Lower North Fork Wildfire
Smoke envelops trees on a ridge in the Lower North Fork Wildfire as it burns in the foothills community of Conifer, Colo., southwest of Denver on Tuesday, March 27, 2012. Firefighters are now able to actively battle the blaze on the ground that started on Monday and has already destroyed at least 16 homes in the rugged terrain. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Emergency personnel respond to a wildfire in Reno, Nev. Friday, Nov. 18, 2011. Nevada firefighters are battling a wind-whipped wildfire that has already burned several homes and caused several injuries. Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez sayfire crews are having a tough time "getting ahead of" the 400-acre blaze. He also says flames broke off into two areas in Caughlin Ranch. Hernandez says about a dozen homes have burned. (AP Photo/The Reno Gazette-Journal, Tim Dunn)
A firefighter tries to keep back the flames, whipped by strong winds, in Reno, Nev. Friday, Nov. 18, 2011. Nevada firefighters are battling a wind-whipped wildfire that has already burned several homes and caused several injuries. Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez sayfire crews are having a tough time "getting ahead of" the 400-acre blaze. He also says flames broke off into two areas in Caughlin Ranch. Hernandez says about a dozen homes have burned. (AP Photo/The Reno Gazette-Journal, Tim Dunn)
A tree burns in the ravine along Manzanita Lane near Broken Arrow in Reno, Nev. Friday, Nov. 18, 2011. Nevada firefighters are battling a wind-whipped wildfire that has already burned several homes and caused several injuries. Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez sayfire crews are having a tough time "getting ahead of" the 400-acre blaze. He also says flames broke off into two areas in Caughlin Ranch. Hernandez says about a dozen homes have burned. (AP Photo/The Reno Gazette-Journal, Liz Margerum) NEVADA APPEAL OUT; NO SALES
In this Sept. 5, 2011 file photo firefighters battle a wildfire on Highway 71 near Smithville, Texas. Despite a recent lull in fire activity statewide, the threat remains in parts of Texas, so the Texas Forest Service is not declaring an end to the wildfire season that started Nov. 15, 2010. (AP Photo/Erich Schlegel, File)
File - In this Sept. 5, 2011 file photo, firefighters battle a large wildfire near Smithville, Texas. Long before this month's historic wildfires in Texas, the state's forest service came up with a $20.4 million plan to stop the flames from starting or tamp them out before small blazes grew deadly and destructive. Three years later, the plan is still only half-funded. (AP Photo/Erich Schlegel, File)
File - In this Sept. 5, 2011 file photo firefighters battle a wildfire on Highway 71 near Smithville, Texas. Scorching temperatures, strong winds and dry vegetation are turning Texas wildfires into fast and furious dangers that hop from place to place within hours, even minutes, and give residents little time to flee. Now it
Okefenokee Swamp Fire
In this June 9, 2011 photo provided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Honey Prairie fire is seen burning in the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia. A wildfire started by lightning in the Okefenokee Swamp is still smoldering and sputtering six months after it started. (AP Photo/ US Fish and Wildlife Service, Howard McCullough)
In this photo taken Oct. 3, 2011, fire and smoke cast a glow as a wildfire burns behind Tuscarora, Nev. about 52 miles northwest of Elko, Nev. (AP Photo/Elko Daily Free Press, Ross Andréson)
In this photo taken Oct. 3, 2011, a firefighter takes a photograph of a crew member as they wait to for orders to move in for ground work as the Dunphy Complex Fire burns just outside Tuscarora, Nev., about 52 miles northwest of Elko, Nev. (AP Photo/Elko Daily Free Press Ross Andréson)
Pagami Creek Fire
In this aerial photo, an area of the Pagami Creek wildfire shows active burning and creates a large smoke plume on Tuesday Sept. 13, 2011 in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northeastern Minnesota. The haze from the fire was heavy enough that some people reported burning eyes and difficulty breathing in the Chicago area, 600 miles south of the forest fire, the National Weather Service said. (AP Photo/The Duluth News-Tribune, Clint Austin)
A wildfire is seen at a national reserve in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, Sept. 9, 2011. Drought, high temperatures and low humidity have caused wildfires at several places around Brasilia, according to officials. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
A large wildfire to the southwest of Tehachapi, Calif. burns on Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011. A single-engine Cessna 210 went down in Blackburn Canyon near the small community of Tehachapi, sparking a raging brush fire that sent up a huge plume of smoke visible for miles around, according to Kern County fire department spokesman Cary Wright. (AP Photo/Dave Mills)
Possum Kingdom Lake Fire
A wildfire roars through dry trees near Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011. Texas and Oklahoma are in the grips of a record-setting drought, and a summer of soaring temperatures and little rain has meant the wildfire season, which usually ends in spring, didn't end this year. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
A wildfire burns near 63rd and Sooner Road on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011, in Edmond, Okla. (AP Photo/The Oklahoman, Chris Landsberger)
Air Depot Wildfire
Cattle move to avoid the flames of a large grass fire in a farm off of Air Depot between 63rd and Wilshire in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011. Authorities have evacuated a larger area in Oklahoma City where a stiff winds and dry conditions fueled a wildfire that destroyed several homes. (AP Photo/The Oklahoman, Paul Hellstern)
Santa Barbara Wildfire
In this Nov. 14, 2008 file photo, a firefighter sprays water on the flames as a mansion burns during a wildfire in Santa Barbara, Calif. As part of the recently approved California budget, owners of rural homes will be assessed a $150 annul fee for fire protection covered by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)
The Monument Fire
The Monument fire burns Thursday afternoon June 16, 2011 near Hereford, Ariz. Authorities say the Monument fire has charred more than 9,300 acres or 14 square miles. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Pat Shannahan)
Sierra Vista Wildfire
Fire trucks escape the flames near South Andalusian Way after the fire jumped State Route 92 as a wildfire burns on Thursday, June 16, 2011 near Sierra Vista, Ariz. (AP Photo/Arizona Daily Star, Dean Knuth)
The Wallow fire burns towards Eagar, Ariz, north of Greer, Ariz,, Wednesday night June 8, 2011. The fire in eastern Arizona that already forced thousands from their homes headed Wednesday for a pair of transmission lines that supply electricity to hundreds of thousands of people as far east as Texas. (AP Photo/Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic)
In this June 10, 2011 file photo, a forest burns during a backburn operation to fight the Wallow Fire in Nutrioso, Ariz. The West's 2012 wildfire season exploded in earnest last month with a wind-whipped blaze that killed three people in rugged alpine canyon country near Denver. At its peak, it took a 700-strong federal firefighting team a week of labor, day and night, to tame the blaze _ and other states throughout the West took notice.Fire experts say this year's drought, low snowpack and record-high temperatures in much of the West portend a dangerous installment of what has become year-round wildfire threat. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Arizona Wildfire Is Largest in State's History
The massive wildfire in Arizona is now 750 square miles and beginning to threaten towns in New Mexico.
Wildfires Sweep Through Colorado
Firefighters struggle to battle a huge fire in an inaccessible forest near Fort Collins, Colorado.