Watchdog Q&A

Published — November 8, 2019

Q&A: Brittny Mejia on the workers being left behind during the Getty fire

A man walks past a burning home during the Getty fire, Oct. 28, 2019, in Los Angeles, Calif. (AP Photo/ Christian Monterrosa)

Introduction

We’re continuing our Q&A series with reporters who have written powerful stories. This week, we’re featuring Brittny Mejia from the Los Angeles Times who reported on how housekeepers and gardeners continued to work while their employers evacuated during the Getty fire in California. She ran into Carmen Solano, a housekeeper from Guatemala. When Solano arrived to work, the neighborhood was largely empty — it was in a mandatory evacuation zone. In an area sprawling with multi-million dollar homes, the rich had evacuated and the workers left to tend their homes were forgotten. 

How did you get this story? 

I was driving in a mandatory evacuation zone and ended up approaching this woman who turned out to be a housekeeper who had showed up for work, and she had no idea that her boss had evacuated. She left her phone at home or in a taxi and she was basically stranded. I ended up calling my editor and basically telling him that I couldn’t leave this woman here. I need to, I need to, you know, give her a ride and help her get out of here. And that kind of just kicked started the whole thing. 

How did you decide to make yourself a central part of the story? 

I think it was interesting because I’ve been a reporter, I feel like we have to remove ourselves from the story. We’re supposed to be the observer. When I initially approached Carmen and as I was interviewing her, I realized that there was no way she’s going to get out of here. My editor said to get her out. Then later after I parked my car and I started bumping into other housekeepers and other workers trying to head into the evacuation zones I realized, “wow, there are clearly bigger issues here.” 

Do you think that the piece is indicative of a larger systemic problem? 

I’ve covered a lot of fires, and weirdly, I had never paid close enough attention to it. I’m having conversations with people who hadn’t realized it was a mandatory evacuation zone, that there were fires going on and were still trying to get into work. They didn’t want to miss a day of work, you know, and said “my boss didn’t say anything to me, so that must mean you want me to come in.” It was interesting to me seeing the dynamic, I mean just from being in a neighborhood like Brentwood, where there was a Porsche, a Mercedes and a Tesla all on one street. And so it was very bizarre. There was just like two different classes of people. 

Takeaway: Sometimes, the best story is right in front of you. 

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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