I smell like smoke, my hair is gritty and I have black streaks on my Dockers where charcoaled brush scraped past me.
There is construction on the main thoroughfare to my apartment and it is backed up a good half hour. So even though I haven't eaten since my breakfast toast and it's now almost seven, I am going to tell you a version of the Alpine Forest fire that won't be in next week's Tehachapi News. Why? Because it's my own personal story as the reporter covering (trying to cover) it and not so much of the fire itself.
I heard of the fire second hand at first. BJ at the Tehachapi Cummings Water District called my editor and told her of the fire. She called a freelancer who's good at this sort of thing, but he was gone. Then, nearly an hour later, S at the sheriff's department called and said it was in Alpine Forest.
Many people are priced out of Alpine Forest just because they can't affort the fire insurance. It's grass and brush and trees and so on. Fortunately, much less brush these days because the county has "fuel crews" that spend the year thinning it out. The grass that grows in its place does burn faster, but it burns low to the ground and it's easy to cut a line in.
Anyway, my editor told me (the only reporter on staff) to go see if I could get a picture.
I said But wait! I am supposed to go take a picture of the crazy driving at Tompkins Elementary as school gets out!
As I said it, I realized how stupid it sounded. The idiot parents are there everyday, after all. After this fire, dozens of homes might not be.
So I grabbed my pad and camera and headed out to the fire.
In Tehachapi, there is a freeway that skirts the northern edge of town. South of the 58: civilization -- for a while, then empty land forever. The north side starts with the empty land and just keeps on going and going.
Anyway, in between the two lanes of the freeway I was getting on, was another fire. So I pulled off the side and took a picture of the city crews fighting the little fire in the median as, behind them, a huge plume of smoke rose from behind the hills. I got back on the freeway, took the next exit and
Got stuck in the construction traffic I mentioned earlier. It took me a long, long, long time to get even to where the sheriff deputies had the road blocked. (Plus I had had to keep pulling over as more and more emergency vehicIes screamed by.) (But I did get to watch a dust devil about two hundred feet high dance on the other side of the valley. Just what we need as a fire is threatening homes: the famous Tehachapi wind.) When I did arrive, I parked my car and walked over to the deputy manning the roadblock. I asked if I could get by.
Nope. He didn't have the authority to let me by. Though he somehow found the authority to let people by who said their children were in "danger" or whatever.
But he did give me a number that I could call.
Problem: I don't have a cell phone.
I walked down the lane of parked cars and each driver was talking frantically to someone they loved. Somehow I cound't find it in me to interrupt.
Then, one woman leaned out her window and asked me what was going on.
I told her they didn't want to let anyone close because they didn't want a helicopter knocking them down the mountain with a load of water. (This is what the deputy told me.) She said thank you and continued talking.
I stood and waited.
When she finished, I asked if I could use her phone. Then I called the number I had been given.
They told me to call county fire.
They said they couldn't contact their man on the ground but I could page him. I said I don't have a phone. They said when they get him, they'll send him down. Meanwhile the giant column of smoke is blowing just to the south of us.
Then, abruptly, the deputies start letting traffic through again. I run to a new deputy on scene, JC, a friend of mine, and ask him how far I can drive. He tells me where the new roadblock will be and I head for it. By the time I can get to my car and manuever it through traffic, the roadblock is set up. I park, talk briefly to a deputy, and start running down the road.
I run only about half a mile, but I have not run half a mile in half my life, so it's impressive, trust me.
Then, just before I get to a second roadblock run by a CHP officer, he pulls away and drives fireward.
Now I'm left with a dilemma---
Do I follow the road? It seems like only a matter of time before someone else stops me. Or do I hop a fence and cross the hill in front of me, the hill that blocks the flames from view?
In other words, do I risk getting arrested or risk becoming the idiot journalist that gets surrounded by a wild brush fire and becomes the evening's news?
I decide to stick to the road. If I survive the flames, maybe I'll get knocked with a $35,000 charge for rescuing me.
Then the CHP officer returns and tells me to turn around.
He doesn't offer me ride.
Near his roadblock is a turn off into the water district's offices. Behind it is Bright Lake where the helicopters are picking up water to dump on the fire. I fantasize grabbing onto its hose, but I realize I'll never have a safe opportunity to get off.
(I never follow up on any of my fantasies to hop onto passing emergency vehicles. I thought for sure I could get on the flatbed carrying the bulldozer, but the CHP guy was right there.)
I head for the district office and ask to use their phone. I call the FD again and get the information officer's pager number.
I page him and wait.
He calls a few minutes later. He's in Bakersfield. He's the wrong info guy. He gives me the right number. I call it and wait.
I'm talking to BJ and he's showing me the pictures he took of the fire and the helicopters.
I'm feeling frustrated.
As I walked into the office the smoke was noticeably lessened. I'm glad the fire seems to be dying, but I want to get some decent photos at least. I'm supposed to be covering this fire!
BJ notices a fire truck pass by and we walk out. It's the local public info officer. He's been looking for me. I tried to page him and he's looking for me. Figures. I've lost at least half an hour.
And the fire's over.
He takes me up to look at the forty or so acres of black and I take some pictures.
Here's something I never knew about fires:
The fire is only barely out, smoke is rising from the ground, larger pieces of vegetation are glowing red even thought the sun is out, and the ground is crawling with bugs.
And here's something else. They like people.
They're jumping onto me and the PIO, and while he has good, protective gear on, I don't. They're getting down my shirt (along with the floating ash) (some of which is still hot) and what's worse, they're biting me.
Not all of them, not all the time. But I'll feel a pinch and I look down and some beetle's got his head burrowed into my arm.
Where did they come from? Did they weather the fire? Did they go underground? Did they flee and are now returning? Is fresh ash where every creepy crawly longs to be?
I don't know. But leftover hitchikers keep biting me for the rest of the time I'm up there.
I get to interview some firefighters next -- but all that'll be in the paper. Visit it online Wednesday when I'm at Bedrock High.
But! My camera.....
I have a longstanding hate relationship with this camera anyway for several reasons and what happened today is not entirely its fault, but that wouldn't make me less happy to smash it with a sledgehammer.
Today, among other things:
I had several opportunities to get pictures of the water falling from helicopters onto smoldering ground. Close up. The camera failed me each time. And after each attempt I was bathed in a wind of ash and steam. I could see it rise and come at me.
I took some pictures of successful protective space around one home. The fire burned the wild grass to within feet of the building, then it stopped, because they had cut it. Good job!
Incredibly, the firefighters lost no structures in this fire. And this one house really was mere feet from the flames' edge. Perhaps ten. And their propane tank was even closer.
As I was "taking" these pictures, the camera kept dying.
The battery. The battery. The [.....] battery.
Then the PIO took me to where the fire had started. An Air Force man, coming home from the East, drove off what the emergency personnel cheerily call Death Curve and flung down four or five hundred feet and hit a tree. Incredibly, he only has minor injuries. But when I got to the scene, there wasn't much left of the car.
I was able to get a picture of the car from the road to show how far it had gone. Then I went down the, oh, 80% embankment to the car. By myself. Everyone else thought I was nuts.
I worked my way down through the ash and floating pages of a complicated math book, hoping the soles of my new shoes weren't melting (thankfully they weren't, but my feet were awful hot, I can tell you that).
Just before I got to the car, my sweet hat (which puts me on the coolness meter somewhere between Bogie and Jimmy Stewart) blew off. I spun and reached and, incredibly, grabbed. Hooray for reflexes!
I arrived at the car and oh, what a mess.
Tires gone. Seats gone. Muffler fallen off. Dashboard melted. Windows melted. Floorboard on fire.
It was incredible. Totally monochromatic. The only nonash color was the greenish hue of the melted glass and the absurdly bright green of the dashboard plastic, in a lumpy stalactite, hanging down.
The flame on the passenger side of the car made it perfect. What I had here was probably the best photograph of my year as a journalist.
And the camera absolutely refused to even turn on.
I stood there and tried every persuasive technique I could think of.
I went back up the long, steep incline, stepping over beer cans all the way.
I went with the PIO to talk to some more people, learn some stuff, take some notes. Everyone was very helpful, but the whole time my legs were shaking. I must've been burning liver tissue now just to keep moving the pen.
So I'll have a pretty good story tomorrow. I won't have many good pictures. These pants were supposed to last me one more day, but I guess that's okay too.
I'm glad no one's house burned down.
The PIO tells me that, only a couple weeks ago, he sent us all his contact information so that we could get in touch with him immediately if, oh, there was a fire. If I had had that information, I could have been to the fire maybe two hours earlier than I was. And the dried-up nostrils and the smelly hair and the oily face would have meant I was in the midst of a raging fire instead of just smokey ground.
I am glad I had this experience. But I wish I could have done it better.
Having worked here a year now, I've covered most likely stories at least once. And next time there's a fire story, I'll know just what to do, what to grab as I leave, who to call, what to ask....
Except next time there's a fire story, I'll be discussing Poe.
Quoth the raven, Nevermore.