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 thatâ€¦ 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.