Tips on the fire line
My rental SUV smells like a junior high school locker room manned by a chain-cigar-smoking gym instructor and I am standing on the side of the road with my pants and shirt half off cleaning myself with baby wipes and I am itching in areas that are not suppose to itch like that… yeah, I am in the field covering a wildfire.
Luckily I keep a “go” bag with all my own fire gear in it. I got the call in the evening and had arrangements to fly to Albuquerque, New Mexico, the next morning. I was being sent to cover the Wallow Wildfire, which has turned into Arizona’s largest fire in history, and was right on the border with New Mexico heading to the community of Luna, New Mexico. Thankfully I had editors that trusted me and knew I had been to a few of these rodeos before and would let me make the calls as to where I would go for photos and take the risk of getting out ahead of the fire.
Much of the media had headed to the northern edge of the wildfire and the towns of Springerville and Eager, Arizona. I had heard nothing but horror stories about trying to get any work done up there. The stories I had heard included hordes of media descending into these small towns making it very difficult to find a unique story. I had also heard from media about how hard it was to work with local enforcement and that even the Public Information officers (PIOs) were taking media nowhere near any real fire action and at times took them away from the visuals and stories.
So, with that knowledge I felt good about getting out on my own and taking a different route. Once landed I quickly threw on my fire gear which included a hardhat, goggles, fire resistant shirt and pants, all leather gloves, steel tipped boots and most importantly a forest service approved fire shelter. This whole kit cost about $700 to put together and I pride myself on owning my own kit. The reason being is that if you want to get anywhere near an active wildfire you have to have all these items on and if you have your own kit, you are not dependent on fire officials loaning you gear if they have it to get you on a fire line. You absolutely cannot show up in a fire camp in shorts and sandals and expect to get onto a fire line, let alone be taken seriously.
On my way to Luna I secured accommodations to sleep in Reserve. There were no hotel rooms available so I was able to rent a dirty, beat up Winnebago mobile home in an RV park that probably hasn’t moved in 30 years. By mid way through the assignment it would be the equivalent of a resort hotel. I paid the folks that own it for the week but also told them I may not be in it much at all as I may be sleeping out near the fire. They were great and would hold it for me even if I wasn’t there and would allow other media to stay in it as long as those media told them that I said it was okay. By the end of the assignment it had turned into a media flop house.
With a dusty “bed” secured I headed out for Luna. On the way, I confirmed it was on pre-evacuation notice and the check point on the road between the two towns may turn into a road block. Once I got into Luna I decided it was best to stay there for the night. The idea being that if Luna did get evacuated I would have already passed the check point that would surely become a roadblock.
I ended up sleeping in my rental SUV in between making feature pics. Never go to a wildfire in a car. Get a 4×4 SUV or truck. Nothing screams media like a compact rental car. Plus, I was on a wildfire in the west, you can guarantee I was going to get off road with it searching for good pics. I ended up sleeping two nights in my rental SUV, eating vienna sausages and cold ravioli right out of the can to keep me going. After the second night I found the last package of baby-wipes at the one gas station in town and took a road side bath with them. Nothing says sexy photojournalist like sitting on the side of the road cleaning yourself up with baby wipes and having oily smoke smelling mud matted hair.
After two nights in the SUV I was able to meet up with reporter, Zelie Pollon. Then it got real as she was able to get me access to the fire lines. Over the course of the next few days I was able to make four runs to the fire lines and get near the town of Alpine, Arizona, where no other media was being allowed. The key to getting real access was we were professional, fully equipped and well behaved. We minded the safety protocol and directions we were given. Soon after my photos went on the wire, other news agencies tried getting press into where we were. But by then, we had the photos others were struggling for.
On two separate occasions I let TV crews ride in my vehicle with me. A tip to any TV journalist, fires and wildland firefighters could care less about your deadlines for live shots at five, six and ten, they have bigger priorities. I have seen access ruined for journalists all over the place because of the actions of a few rude or dumb ones.
A last drink at Uncle Bill’s bar with a waitress that would have rather closed shop than serve me a whiskey and coke served well for the Wallow Fire telling me to “Go home.”
A couple tips I cannot stress enough are;
– Spend the money and get properly and fully equipped if you want close access and want to be taken seriously. Hard hat, goggles, leather gloves, sturdy leather hiking boots, fire resistant (nomex) pants and shirt and most importantly, a current model fire-shelter. Spend the money for it and hope you will never have to use it.
-Bring plenty of water and simple food. I survived much of the time on gatorade and poptarts.
– Be ready for long days. My shortest day was 14 hours.
– Rent a real SUV (not a crossover) with four-wheel drive and good ground clearance.
– Always back into where you are parking. It saves time to pull straight out if you and others are in a hurry if the fire is approaching.
– When you leave your vehicle, do not lock it and leave your keys in it. Or do what I do, I leave the keys in with the gas cap. That way if you get injured or burned others can jump in your car and escape.
– Pack light and be ready to move. No one is going to know or care if you have clean underwear on. Forget about being clean, comfortable and pretty. You are at a wildfire. You will look and smell like crap… own it.
– And lastly, these fires effect real people and destroy real lives. You, your ego, what your editor wants and your publication means nothing to it or them. Treat the firefighters, the victims of the fire and the fire itself with the utmost respect. By covering some of this stuff, you are living the dream, do it well.