MSN had this question on their website awhile back – and I had to answer, “Uh, yeah.”
Years ago, I was working in Tacoma Washington as a photojournalist when I saw smoke coming from the south… Not just a little smoke, but a huge amount of it – forest fire size. I checked with my editor, and they cleared me to go shoot it. I filled up the tank of the company’s Corolla I’d been assigned, and headed south.
Thing is, to get there (Morton) from Tacoma was about an hour and a half or so, so I wasn’t able to go instantly, but I followed my nose and eventually came across a sign spray painted on a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood:
← Forest Fire
– it had an arrow pointing left. I took that road, and drove for miles on a logging road laid through the forest like a broken suspender. Finally came to a clearing with a pond where a helicopter was dipping water – I got a few shots of that with a 50 mm lens because it was quite literally right in front of me, then just as he pulled out – an aerial tanker shot out from behind a hillside in the distance – dumping his load of red fire retardant onto the fire. It was amazing, hillside… smoke… tanker… red stuff… I swung the camera up and got the picture – but because I still had the 50mm lens on, it was a teensy bit of an image – I’d needed a telephoto for that, and that was still in the case in the back seat of the car.
So I did what’s normal for firefighters, ambulance drivers, cops, and journalists, and drove toward the flames.
I kept seeing signs for the tanker trucks, and the trucks themselves, often feeling them before I saw them, rolling earthquakes coming down the mountain to refill themselves with more water from wherever they could get it.
The newspaper I worked for had radios in all the cars, and they worked on a repeater system, a lot like cell towers. You’d grab the mike, push the talk button, and wait for the chirp to tell you the repeater was in range, and then you’d start talking. If you were out of range, you’d get the obnoxious “braaap” instead of the chirp. By this time all I heard was “braaap.” I was on my own. I made it around the edge of this box canyon and was heading up a ridge. The next turn would have put me on the hillside that tanker had hit. It was around this time that the car started handling a little differently… Mushy in the rear end, drifting to the right. (toward the box canyon).
This was followed by the sound and sparks of the rim of the wheel hitting the sharp rocks on the road that had flattened the tire.
I couldn’t control the car very well, the rim wasn’t giving me anything in the way of traction, so I had to stop – in the middle of a hill, flaming box canyon down to my right, smoldering hillside up to my left. I tried to change the tire – but given where I was, any tanker truck careening around the curve down the hill would see me at the last second, before there was too much time to avoid a collision….
And… That would make the forest fire a bit worse.
This would be bad.
I squeezed the car off to the side as far as I could, and hit the ground with the dedication and intent of an Indy pit crew.
Except, they jack up on level concrete.
I didn’t have that.
They have these pneumatic insta-jacks.
They have air wrenches.
I had a big bent wire with a socket welded to the end of it.
I was jacking up a company car, on a hill, with a flat, so it was hard to even get the jack under there, and once I got it up, it desperately wanted to fall off. Most of the things that I would have used to brace the car to keep it from rolling were on fire, so that limited my options a bit. Understand, at this point I was feverishly working on getting the car into the air, had my back to the canyon now, so all I saw reflected in the car fender was embers.
The smoke was getting a little thicker, and to say that there was a touch of urgency in my actions might be considered an understatement. My main concern at that time was being hit by an out of control tanker truck – well, the forest fire was a bit of a concern, too. I wasn’t in it, mind you, but any place I could run to avoid a collision with the aforementioned truck was also on fire.
Oh, the other thing Indy pit crews have is tires with air in them. I’d gotten the spare out of the trunk – and it was then that I discovered that it was low. Not flat, but low enough to keep me from driving the car very fast on this or any road, much less a dirt one with sharp tire eating rocks on it.
At this point, it was quite clear that getting photos of the forest fire was rather secondary to me getting myself out of there.
So if it isn’t clear yet, I’m in the middle of a hill, on a dirt road, smoldering canyon to my right, hill to my left, road up ahead turns left out of sight, and since the road wasn’t wide enough to do a three point turn, the only way I could get out was to back out down the hill on an almost flat tire until I could find a spot to turn around. So I did that, backed up for about ¾ of a mile – then drove far, far slower than I wanted to as I was getting out – leaving the smoldering hillsides in my rear view mirror.
What I didn’t know then – at least until the next day – is that among all the burning stuff was some poison oak. I was wearing contact lenses at the time, and whatever was in the poison oak got into them. The next day – I only had to put the contacts in and I felt like my eyes were on fire. Ended up going to a clinic then to get things taken care of, but enough of the oils in the poison oak had gotten into the soft contacts that they were completely shot.
So: did I get the picture and did it make the paper?
Well, I got pictures. Not the dramatic ones I wanted, but I got something , but the most important bit was that I got out.
I had to drive quite awhile on that tire – remember, it’s not completely full of air – so the car’s lurching about as I have to drive slow so as not to overheat it and blow that one, too.
Eventually I found a gas station in Elbe, and filled up the (by now) very hot tire there. As I left, I saw an absolute herd of emergency vehicles heading the other way.
Knowing I had to get the film back to the paper, I tried to reach them on the radio: “Braaaap” – no go. I found a payphone. No go. Every number I called at the paper was simply unavailable and I couldn’t reach them by radio.
Then I heard on the scanner that this was a fatal accident, and the paper generally wanted images of fatal accidents, so I kept trying to call, and eventually gave up and chased the State Patrol and the aid cars and the various official vehicles. They left the main road and headed down a gravel forest service road at high speed. I stayed glued to them, because otherwise I’d be completely lost. I heard the EMT’s talking to each other on the scanner, “Who’s that in the little brown car? Is he with us?” “Nah, he’s not with us, must be some sort of vulture from the media.”
Oh good… I was a vulture.
We all got to the scene of the accident – and it was striking how innocuous the road looked. It didn’t look like you could kill yourself on this road, but someone drove their last mile here. It swept gently left, then gently right, and as it was gravel, you could see exactly what had happened. The fellow was going too fast, and started sliding on the left turn, then finally caught it, and overcorrected too late when the road swung right. The truck was on its side in the middle of the road and by now it was getting quite dark. I should have been back at the paper hours ago.
I was living at home with my folks at the time, and knew that they’d be worried if I didn’t show up and didn’t call to tell them why. I was trying to figure out how to do that when one of the staters walked up to me and asked if I could take some photos of the accident scene for them. I saw my chance: “Sure – as long as I can talk you into calling my folks and letting them know I’m okay… – just – when you call, don’t immediately identify yourselves as “hi, I’m Sgt. Smith from the Washington State Patrol and I’m calling about your son, who’s at the scene of an accident…” – that would freak them right out…
Call ‘em – let ‘em know I’m okay – and I’ll shoot what you want. Deal?
So I shot, then headed back to the car, and drove as fast as I could to get back to the paper to process the film of the forest fire and accident. Of course, I didn’t want to drive so fast that I’d see the same Staters again.
I kept hitting the microphone switch, waiting for the little ‘chirp chirp’ that told me I’d hit the repeater, because once I’d hit that, I knew I’d be able to talk to the paper.
It took about 30 minutes of fast driving before I got a chirp, and 10 more before I got it reliably. Once there, I got through to the chief photographer, who told me to call him when I was closer – I’d missed the color deadline, we’d see if I could get there in time to do the black and white deadline.
By the time I got to – let’s call it ‘civilization’ – I’d missed the black and white deadline, too, so what this meant is that the photos I’d taken would never see print.
When he knew where I was, he told me to just head home – which saved me about 40 miles of driving.
I went home, and got there somewhere between 9 and 10 – and took the contacts out and crashed.
Next day – when I put the contacts in – all the oils from the burning poison oak were like red hot pokers in my eyes – and it was almost impossible to see – and for a photographer, that’s kind of a bad thing. I went to a clinic where we decided the contacts were a lost cause, and that if I was ever near a forest fire again, I should do what I could to stay upwind of it.
It seemed like a good idea.
Is there a moral to this? I didn’t think of any while writing this – but I feel I need to tie it all together somehow.
Well, I suppose there’s several morals:
- Be prepared. This might sound like a little Boy Scout thing – but there’s a lot of truth to it. Make sure you’ve got air in your spare, make sure you’ve got a jack handle. I know of one person who decided that to get better mileage, he’d dump the spare and the jack, “because he had roadside assistance on his cell phone”. That just wouldn’t have worked out there.
- Make sure the folks who care about you know where you are. It’s just not cool to make people worry unnecessarily.
- When shooting forest fires… Shoot from the upwind side.
…and stay away from the poison oak. It’s nasty…
(c) Tom Roush 2009