McKinney fire: Sheriff claims news crew abused press privileges

The Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office alleges that a television news crew abused its media privileges while covering the deadly McKinney Fire that burned in the Klamath National Forest on the California-Oregon border.

The fire, which has grown rapidly in hilly, challenging terrain, has consumed 56,668 acres and was 10% contained as of Friday, according to US Forest Service spokesman Aaron Johnson. At least four people have died in the fire, but there is no official count of the number of buildings damaged or destroyed.

The sheriff’s office declined to officially name the news channel cited in its complaint, telling SF Gate the investigation is ongoing. However, the incident was linked to a television crew reporting for ABC News.

During their coverage, the ABC News crew filmed on private property that had been destroyed by the fire and had not yet been vacated by police, in “an unlawful abuse of press privilege,” the sheriff’s office said Tuesday.

The show featured Matt Gutman, ABC News’ chief national correspondent, with a Siskiyou resident, who showed the crew what she believed was her uncle’s property.

Gutman asks the resident if she was in contact with her uncle.

“No, he died. He must have died. He lived right there,” she said, pointing to the charred remains of the house.

The sheriff’s office said the remains of one person were later found at the property, which “disturbed the media.” It is also alleged that ABC News reported on the discovery of the remains before authorities could properly process the crime scene and notify the family.

“This is unacceptable and disrespectful to fire victims and their families and will NOT be tolerated,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

An ABC spokesman said in a statement obtained by The Times that the news crew had permission to be at the property.

“Officials gave ABC News permission to cross the firing line. A local resident gave us permission to be on the property where the house burned down. … As soon as residents discovered the body, our team notified law enforcement,” the spokesman said.

California law grants the media unrestricted access to “scenes of disaster, riot, or civil commotion” under California Penal Code 409.5(d). But the media is barred from entering locations that interfere with investigations.

The Sheriff’s Office states that this property was considered a crime scene as the cause of the fire is still under investigation. Areas affected by the fire will be treated as crime scenes to “conserve the area for investigators and protect potential evidence,” the statement said.

“As we actively screen structures and properties for deceased persons and conduct various law enforcement investigations, it is imperative that the media respect the necessary restrictions on private property and remain on public property that has been cleared for media access,” the Office of the sheriffs McKinney fire: Sheriff claims news crew abused press privileges

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