All In A Day’s Work — Covering The Rim Fire
(My thanks to David Bienick for the photos of me filming the fire.)
When you work in TV news you usually never know what you’re going to be doing when you start the day. My weekday shift at KCRA generally starts at 10 AM, but yesterday (Thursday, 8-22-2013) morning the phone rang at 8:30. It was Melissa Chacon, who runs the weekday assignment desk asking if I could go to the Yosemite area to cover the Rim Fire burning outside it. Also, she didn’t know if it would be a same day down-and-back or an overnighter or a couple of days down there, so to pack some clothes. Yosemite is a three-hour drive from Sacramento, so the sooner I could get into work, get my gear and get on the road, the better. I threw a few essentials into a bag, kissed Bonnie and the dogs goodbye, reminded her of which drawer my will is kept, and headed off to another day’s work.
The fire, last I checked, was still about 6 miles or so from the northwestern edges of Yosemite, so it has a way to go before it gets to the national Park,. But this fire has been growing rapidly – and spreading out in every direction. It’s currently about the size of the city of Sacramento for half the size of Lake Tahoe, so this is a big, big fire. As of yesterday it was only 2% contained, and that ain’t much.
I was lucky to be traveling and working on this story with KCRA reporter David Beinick. You never know what you’re going to see when you’re sent to cover a forest fire. Quite often the fires are burning a distance away in remote and inaccessible canyons and the only way you can film them are from vista overlooks where you can easily be one or more miles away. This was not the case at the Rim Fire, which is what this forest fire is being called.
We passed through a police checkpoint where tourists and the general public are turned away, but through which accredited media have access. And we also had to have our yellow fire protective outer wear on just in case. As it turned out, this turned out to be very important.
David and I traveled perhaps 10 miles into the fire zone. As I said, this is a big, big fire. There we came across some crews from Colorado who were working to control to ground. Their goal to have the flames burn off the ground “fuel” – the dry grass and small brush on the ground – in the effort to keep the flames from getting up into the trees and leaping across the road that they were working from.
Everything was calm and relaxed as the firefighters put out little spot fires of flames creeping up the sides of the trees. Then the winds kicked up and started blowing in the opposite direction – and right at us. The fire started racing up the dry bark of the tree trunks. The branches started to ignite like gasoline and then the fire was in the treetops.
The sound of the fire became a roar as the burning treetops sucked up the oxygen from below and the dry needles of the limbs burst into flame. The situation turned very hairy. Dense, choking smoke everywhere. Hot, freshly burned ash raining down on us, stinging the skin on our necks and running down inside of the protective clothing. The heat became intense and you had to very quickly and deftly get away quickly, while also keeping out of the way of the firefighters and their work.
When the wind shifted and blowing towards us, this meant that the fire was going to be moving in our direction. At that point the fires in the treetops leapt across the road and started getting into the trees on the other side of the road. This fire, which had been tame just a few moments before, had suddenly turned wild and the fire crews had to scramble to get control of it again.
It was pretty wild for a couple of minutes. I have honestly never been in a situation like that before. I wasn’t afraid because we were on a paved road, so the fire would be burning on either side of us. If we’d been on a dirt trail it could have been a much, much more dangerous situation.
It was some of the most exciting footage that I’ve ever shot, and it truly give you an appreciation for the work that the firefighters do. David and I were lucky because we only had to be there for an hour or so, then we had to get back to the satellite truck to file this story. The firefighters had to stay and are still there fighting this fire.
At KCRA we have been going through a transition to full HD coverage on the air, in the studio, and in the field. This has been an process that has been going on for the past few years since the switch to all Digital programming. It’s very involved and takes time. The entire building has to be re-wired and every piece of equipment has to be replaced. So it’s very expensive and is not typically done all at once. One of our satellite trucks has not been converted as yet, so while these stories were shot in high definition, they aired in standard definition. What I have posted here is the HD version directly out of my laptop. So the stories that you see here on the site are unique to the visitors of this site.
Posted here are the two stories that David and I put together for the 5 o’clock 6 o’clock KCRA-3 News.
DAVID BIENICK ANECDOTE:
After David and I had finished with our stories and live shots and it was time to make the three hour drive back to Sacramento, a live truck for one of the other Sacramento TV stations pulled up and a reporter behind the wheel called out, “Hey, I know a shortcut back. Follow me.” Which we did – and it was shorter. I’d seen this reporter around for decades, good guy, grey hair, must be somewhere in his early sixties.
As we’re driving back I said to David, “I wonder how much longer that guy’s going to be doing this.”
“Why?” David said. “What do you mean?”
“Well, how old does that guy look to you?”
David shrugged, “I don’t know. Fifty-three.”
“Fifty-three?” I said incredulously. “I’m 57! If you think he looks 53 and I’m 57, then what the hell does that say about me???”
David just looked at me, mouth agape. Then said, “You sound just like my wife.” Then he went on, “I can only say to you the same thing I say to her about things like this: You still look good to me, honey.”