Thursday, July 23, 2009
What’s your emergency?
The best part of my job is one minute you are trying to coax a dog into sitting still for his picture and the next you’re screaming down a country road heading into a massive grassfire. The fun just never ends. Last Wednesday I didn’t think it would ever end as I hopped from fire to fire in one of the most bizarre days I can remember.
It always starts innocently enough; a call on the scanner comes across of a grass fire burning off Patterson Road near Via Nicolo Road. I know the area, lots of hills, and lots of grass and with the afternoon winds it could be trouble. I grab my gear and start toward the column of smoke rising to the west.
I am not even halfway to the scene when the call across the radio brings a second alarm on the fire, more crews and equipment will be heading to the fire. I can see the large header from the blaze billowing up above the Safeway and Costco warehouses off Schulte Road and freeway traffic is at a standstill as I near the turn for Patterson Pass Road. The CHP has closed the road and I park to head up Via Nicolo Road on foot to the fire a call comes across the radio that the fire is crossing I-580. Things are starting to turn bad to worse. Via Nicolo is reopened and the CHP leave to deal with the fire around the freeway.
I take a quick drive up the road to see if there are any flames left but only find soot and a group of workers who I later find out think my quick trip up the road is an arsonist enjoying his handiwork. I head back down toward I-580 to see what I can get and grab a shot of the smoke piling over the roadway and Delta Mendota Canal. The fire is dying quickly as the crews from Tracy Fire, Cal Fire and Alameda County Fire have knocked down its advance as it burns harmlessly toward canal banks and starves of fuel. I head back to Via Nicolo Road where crews are mopping up smoldering spots of the fire and cutting fire breaks in case the wind drive embers for a flare up.
I am just down the street from my next assignment, a tour of the GWF Peaker Plant so checking my watch I figure it is time to head out. I pack my camera up, head back to Schulte Road and drive right up to a newly started grass fire. My day just got interesting.
Burning along Schulte Road across from the Safeway warehouse a line of flames slowly rise out of the yellow grass licking dangerously close to several semi trucks and trailers parked along the road’s shoulder. I lock up my brakes, jump out grab my cell phone and hit 9-1-1 to report the growing fire. Nothing. It just rings. I cancel and try again. Flames are now growing and spreading down the road. I try a third time and get the same ringing. Smoke is starting to flash brown and black as tires in the field ignite. The flames are growing and I frantically call the editor in the newsroom and shout in the phone to call 9-1-1 and report a fire.
About that time fire crews filling their engines with water after fighting the Patterson Pass Road fire see the header of smoke billowing up from Schulte Road and call the fire in themselves. Back at the fire I hear the sirens approach as Schulte Road is now just a wall of smoke. I can’t see how far the fire has spread into the field through the dense smoke. I stand in the median trying to make sure I don’t get hit by the traffic leaving eastbound or the fire crews rushing to the scene in the westbound lanes. I start to get that wonderful burning eye sensation as the smoke wafts across the road. I am starting to smell like a burnt old shoe. Fire crews arrive and begin attacking the fire as it burns near the trucks parked along the roadway, none of which have caught fire yet.
As the fire is brought under control I tell the crews of my struggle to call the fire in. I can’t believe I dialed 9-1-1 three times and was greeted by only ringing. With the fire contained I head back to the office to download my pictures when I hear my name on the scanner. Fire crews are looking for me as I was first on scene at the fire. They need an idea where it started for their investigation. I head back and point at the truck where I saw the most flames behind.
Hot smelly and needing something cold I head over to the coffee shop for a nice blended coffee while my memory card downloads. Back in the office I hear fire crews and yet another fire. Mount Diablo near South School has a structure fire reported. The fun never ends and I pack up and head to my third fire of the afternoon.
A grass fire in a small lot as burned to a pair of sheds and an abandoned house. The sheds are heavily damaged and the house is slightly scorched as crews pour water on the structures. I work around the streams of water flying toward the burned structures and grab a few shots as crews douse the hot spot. I later would find out that I wasn’t the only one hopping around from fire to fire. We would later find out that a series of suspicious fires, 11 of them in all starting at just before 11:00 am and the last one at just before midnight and sent crews scrambling all over town. The Via Nicolo Road fire was the largest of them all scorching over 80 acres of grass.
It was a crazy day rushing from fire to fire only to find out that it may have been arson. I have never pulled up to spot news like that before, first on scene. I much rather be behind the camera taking pictures of the news than being part of it.