Reporters' Blog

Find posts by keyword
Find posts by date


Getting Close to the Fire

by Pat Dooris

Bio | Email | Follow: @PatDoorisKGW

Posted on July 28, 2006 at 7:10 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 2:40 PM

As a reporter, heading to a big forest fire is a thrilling adventure.

We grab our protective clothing, yellow shirts and green pants made from Nomex, which makes it harder to burn, but lets not find out, and special wild land fire boots made by the Danner company from Portland. Show up in those and the fire bosses know you're no rookie. It helps with access to the flames.

My fire bag also holds a hard hat, gloves, goggles and a protective fire shelter in case we get over run with flames, but again, lets not find out if it works.

I've heard some crews in the field refer to those shelters as hot dog wrappers. They're silvery and a bit like foil. They joke that if you get in one, searchers will find you just like a hot dog, cooked inside.

Wild fires seem to be made for TV events. They usually don't do much in the morning because the weather is cooler and holds more humidity. In the afternoon all heck can break loose. The temperatures soar, the humidity drops and the wind kicks in.

Photographer Scott Williams and I headed to the Black Crater fire outside Sisters on Thursday.

By 3pm we'd found an escort with the forest service who agreed to take us near the flames.

He had one question. Show me your gear, he said.

No gear means no access or long delays which is killer when facing a news deadline.

Scotty and I showed him our stuff...and were in his Suburban heading to the flames moments later.

I don't know about you, but I love danger as long as its controlled.

I like getting close to big wild fires as long as I have an escape route. Its sort of like going to the zoo. Its only cool to see the lions if you know they cant eat you.

Driving down a gravel forest road toward the towering smoke plume gave me an adrenaline rush.
We passed contract fire crews on their way out from the fire. That worried me, and our escort. He turned up his two way radio and held it to his ear.

Why were they heading away from the flames? We all wondered.
Our escort talked to them and learned the erratic winds were too dangerous to keep crews in the field. Burning embers could fly thru the air and start spot fires almost anywhere.

Okay, he said, lets get out, spend a couple minutes here then we're gone.

On the left side of the road, a couple hundred yards away we saw the latest spot fire. Orange flames burned along the scrub brush on the ground, sometimes running up the trunks of dried trees which burst into flames.

On the right side of the road, up beyond several stands of trees, a thick cloud of white and gray smoke mingled with wisps of black smoke from trees torching near the top. Its called crowning.

The winds swirled around us bending branches on the smaller trees near the road.

Occasionally the wind from the fire on the right would push smoke across the road and obscure the burning trees on our left.

It looks weird when that happens. A brown fog seems to cover the roadway. As you watch the burning trees the flame seems to get very dark orange, then disappears as the brown smoke covers the area.

Its strange standing on the road, fire shelter in hand, wondering what it would take for the blaze to jump past us and shut off our escape route.

I think our escort wondered the same thing. Time to go, he said. I don't like this.

We were the only ones on the road now.

They're pulling all the crews off the fire and sending them to staging, he said. We need to go too.

By the time we got back to our news van it was four o'clock.

The news starts at five. Actually it often starts around 4:58pm.

Oh crap.

We drove to join our satellite truck in the community of Crossroads. They'd been told to evacuate an hour earlier and the road was jammed with pickups and rental trucks and cars loaded down with household possessions.

As we drove closer you could hear an ominous two tone siren similar to a tsunami warning or air siren. It came from a sheriff's deputies who drove through the community...knocking on the doors of 175 different homes.

Scotty shot some of the cars and trucks leaving as I ran to the satellite truck to begin writing my story for the 5pm news. Time check: 4:30pm.

Driving to a fire is intense...but so is scrambling to get ready for a newscast..while a big fire is heading your way, residents are quickly evacuating but you cant get to it to show the viewers because as surely as the fire is bearing down on you too is the beginning of the newscast!!!

In the end, I wrote something that included flames and evacuation, reported it live, then Scotty and I shot more video
of evacuations and included it in the 6pm and 6:30 pm stories.

By the heart goes out to all who had to evacuate from Crossroads and Edgerton road. I hope you are back home quickly, and that your property is okay.

Pat Dooris