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 V.19 No.14 | April 8 - 14, 2010 

Thin Line

Burning Love: Covering Fire and the People Who Start It

It’s been three years since I started beat reporting, and in that time I suppose I’ve covered 100 fires. Probably more.

So the other day, happening upon a brush fire in Smalltown, N.M., I parked illegally and grabbed my camera. I had snapped about 12 shots when a woman began screaming for help in my direction. Reporters just observe. We don’t get involved.

I froze and pretended she was yelling at someone else.

“Help me!” she yelled again, clearly not buying my “Who, me?” routine.

But it didn’t work.

“Help me!” she yelled again, clearly not buying my “Who, me?” routine.

When she was 10 feet away, there was no way to avoid being conscripted into volunteer firefighting. I was tossed a shovel. Thus began my furious 10 minutes as a firefighter. I shoveled and hacked and wheezed.

The fire had begun along a ditch and jumped the water, settling into a bank of trees. I pocketed my camera and ran into the smoke plume now drifting over the neighborhood. The fire spread quickly and soon threatened two houses, a barn and a horse trailer.

There are at least three documented instances involving my father.

Much to my relief, the real fire department arrived and I went back to being a reporter.

This was the first time I had ever been handed a shovel at a fire by a frantic homeowner, and I hope it’s the last. But I will say reporting on a fire is a rush better than any dope.

Being in the fire, however, is a little too chaotic for me. People scream; fire crackles. Penned livestock climb on each other in confusion, unable to get away.

I have in the past seen dozens of fire trucks lined up against a fire line, bright against the horizon out on the rolling plains of Oklahoma. The smoke caused the temperature to drop and the only sound was the high-tension power lines buzzing and the mooing of cattle.

The line of trucks began to move on the fire, and it seemed at the time like the final battle between good and evil, order against chaos.

The fire eventually hit a creek and died. It most likely had been started by an arsonist. Arsonists play a key role in the symbiotic relationship between fire and firefighters (and pain-in-the-ass reporters).

There is the garden-variety pyromaniac who is enthralled by fire, attracted to it (eew). These people are crazy.

Then there is the hero arsonist, sometimes a firefighter or wannabe, who starts a blaze in order to put it out and then rake in the praise, women and free beer. Also crazy.

Finally there is the god complex arsonist, like one who, precisely at 12:30 p.m. nearly every day for six weeks before finally being caught, set one fire and then drove across the county and set another, just to affect his own little chaotic universe. Very crazy.

According to firefighters I have known, it is hard to catch arsonists because the evidence burns in the fire. Suspected serial arsonists are generally asked nicely to leave the state. (The aforementioned fire-starter was sent back to Florida. Perhaps Florida had first sent him to Oklahoma.)

Many fires begin with barely sentient homeowners tossing gasoline on unwanted yard waste. There are at least three documented instances involving my father.

Sometimes it’s just jerky preteens who can’t find a cat to torture.

The bottom line is that these brave men and women fight the fires started by crazy people, criminals and leaf-burners. They work together so people like me earn literally tens of dollars a week to watch and report. Thank you, firefighters. Arsonists and careless homeowners: Keep up the bad work. My cat needs braces.

 
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