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By Lynn French
Photographer KPNX-TV Phoenix, AZ
WHADDAH YA KNOW, IT IS BRAIN SURGERY
Okay, I have column all ready to go on "when the sales department is your pimp". And wouldn't you know, the day I was going to do the final proof reading of it and send it to Kevin, I had a little situation where my pimp did me wrong and I realized my reaction was completely hypocritical to what I said in the column. So while I have been retooling it toward reality, some other stuff has happened.
For 36 hours, Photographer Safety ruled my world. It started in San Diego. I was there for almost a week covering the southern California wildfires. I had the good fortune to be paired with our wildfire expert, Jim Paxon. If you work in the Western United states and covered last year's Rodeo Chediski fire in Arizona or the Los Alamos fires in New Mexico in the late 90's, you know Jim as the straight shooting, down home Texan PIO who can hold a press conference that is more riveting than most prime time TV. He is Dr. Phil meets Smokey Bear with some farm boy and favorite grandpa mixed in with rugged good looks to boot.
As we drove to San Diego early Monday morning, Jim told me he did not do well voicing packages with scripts. Folks, I preach the one-man-band mantra often; this is when it pays off---BIGTIME.
I have this "thing" about already having a package shot by the time we get there, so if we don't find anything else, we are still okay. When we hit El Centro, California, the mountains were shrouded by smoke---opening shot done. At Jacumba we hit a roadblock. Jim pulled out the map and started looking for alternative routes. I shot people being diverted onto a southbound highway and got a little sound for our first package. Jim talked to the highway patrolman about the best way to get to San Diego. The officer informed the former PIO that in California, credentialed media could go anywhere we want as long as we don't impede emergency vehicles or put ourselves in a situation that requires rescue. We skirted past the police barricade and back onto an abandoned Interstate 8. Laguna Summit revealed huge black plumes due west. Jim gave me a diagnosis of the smoke involving the marine inversion layer, heavy fuels, collapsing columns and "keeping the lid on the skillet". We continued to an area just west of Descanso, a little mountain community in the Cleveland National Forest where Jim spotted red slurry lines on the mountainside. Pockets of fire popped up among the craggy rocks. Forest Service firefighters squirted them down from their minty green pumper trucks. I shot a few minutes of tape while Jim talked to a fire fighter. When I walked up to them, my reporter, a 34 year veteran of wildland fire fighting, was being questioned by the young man for some advice.
When we got back in the car, Jim said the firefighter recommended going up Highway 79 toward Julian rather than continuing toward San Diego if we wanted to find some active fire. We drove to a median crossover where we spotted a rest area that would make good satellite truck parking for Skylink, our ancient beast of an SNG truck. At first it was just a strong visual background of black moonscape and snowing ash, but then we spotted an appropriate artifact that represented these wildfires---a Mercedes Benz overrun by fire, the smoldering shell of a luxury car would serve us well for the 5 and 6pm shows.
We entered the community of Descanso, a picture perfect hideaway with a country store and lots of log cabins. Perfect, except for the huge column of smoke pouring down the mountain. We drove up into the canyon where flames threatened little wooden shacks and giant palaces of timber and glass. As we watched helicopters with Bambi buckets circle the fingers of fire, I handed Jim my stick mic and he started talking about what he saw, analyzing why it was important for people to evacuate and predicting what the fire would do in the coming hours. I asked him to tell me about our drive into California and then we had enough to track two packages. We started back toward the sat truck when Jim spotted a "safe zone" where the residents were staying in nomad shelters with their large farm animals tied to trees and in makeshift corrals in the midst of a dry lakebed. We pulled up to a campsite with three giant critters hitched to a 1943 International Harvester work truck and a mid 80's Mitsubishi pickup with a mattress in the bed and three dogs in the cab. Jim and I interviewed the keeper of the campsite, Duncan. He agreed to be on camera if we would talk to his mule, Doug. He told Jim about the firefighters evacuating him from his house and having to leave all of his wood working tools and how he lead his horse, Religion, the Shetland pony, Ginger and Doug the mule down the highway like a parade. Firefighters told him fire would sweep over Descanso during the night but they would be okay in the lakebed.
For our packages at 5 and 6, I wove together Jim's analysis of the fire and Duncan's fears of nightfall. Jim went live demonstrating the heat of the fire showing how the Mercedes had melted into the pavement of the rest area. We then shot and edited two more packages, found our hotel and prepared to be up at 1:30 in the morning for the morning show liveshots.
Tuesday morning, we went live from an area just above the El Cajon Wal-Mart that burned during the night and was still smoldering. We were still in awe how close we could be to the active fire. After shooting two packages in a burned out neighborhood called Harbison Canyon, we figured out the best way for Jim to track our packages was to just put the wireless mic on him and let him talk. Jim demonstrated how radiant heat burned homes that were not in the line of fire and houses that should have burned were protected by the cooling effect of lawns and shrubs. At that point I had two interviews from residents that were about three minutes each and 45 minutes of track from Jim. We then returned to Descanso to see how Duncan made it through the night.
The drive up Highway 79 was a slow one, a dozen cities' fire engines (or pavement queens as they are called by wildland guys) lined both shoulders and we went through four police barricades back to the safe zone. We could see Duncan's campsite was gone and he must have gone home. The air was thick with smoke and fire was crawling down the mountain toward the Elementary school. We took the second turn past the Catholic Church and bounced down the dirt road to Duncan's house. Religion the horse met us at the corner and Pierre the dog barked at us from the window. Duncan and his menagerie moved back home at daybreak. Jim jumped out of our Explorer and called to Duncan in his modest wood cottage. When Duncan opened the door, it revealed a single room house with just an ancient two-burner cook stove and a twin bed surrounded by thousands of books. We were at Henry David Thoreau's house, but Walden was about to go up in flames.
Jim examined the smoke coming over the ridge. He took a very serious tone with Duncan, "You have two hours to get out of here, if that fire come around hill, everything in this canyon is gone." Duncan is the kind of guy who would not listen to anyone telling him to get out of his house, but coming from the down home tone of Jim, he trusted Jim and started to round up critters.
Duncan and his friend Jeff walked Religion, Ginger and Doug the Mule back to the safe zone while Jim ran me up a giant hill behind the house so he could get a better look at the fire. As I huffed and puffed behind Jim he yelled track back to me, "The houses we shot yesterday further up the canyon are gone, Duncan has less than an hour now." I caught up with him at the barbed wire fence on top and looked up the hill, less than two football fields away, the fire was coming right to us. Then Jim pointed behind me; fire had also topped another crest in the opposite direction. We ran back down the hill and jumped in the Explorer and raced to the safe zone to warn Duncan. He planned on making a trip back to the house to get Pierre, Tina the calico cat and some books; he would have to hurry.
We were also out of time, it would be a race for us to get back to Skylink, get two packages edited and do something for 10 plus edit the two morning show packages.
That night as I fought to fall asleep around 11:00pm, I kept scaring my self awake worrying about Duncan and Doug the Mule. It was my first thought 2 hours later when I got up Wednesday morning at 1:30am to get in place for the morning show. When Jim and I met at the Explorer, it was the first thing out of his mouth.
We pushed through the two hours of liveshots and made a beeline for Descanso. The tree-lined roads we drove the day before were now pavement surrounded by black sticks. We made the second turn before the Catholic Church; it was blackened in every direction. My heart stopped, Jim was silent, we made the last turn, the ground was charred...right up to Duncan's driveway. We both sighed in relief, Pierre appeared in the window and Duncan popped out of the front door to greet us. Religion, Ginger and Doug the mule were still down in the safe zone tied to the International Harvester. We shot our 5pm package with Jim and Duncan assessing what he needed to do around his house to protect it from future fire seasons.
When we got back into El Cajon and cell service, we reported to the station that Duncan and Doug's house made it through the night and that would fulfill the promise we made the night before to our viewers to see what happened. They then said, "their house did not burn down, that's not a package, you need to go to Julian, that is where the story is, there are houses burning there." Emotionally and physically exhausted, I ran this past Jim. Jim shook his head and took the cell phone, "it is not safe for us to be there, Lynn does not have the proper fire protection equipment for us to be in that." After they insisted that we take the sat truck with us, Jim said no; we were then TOLD we were going to Julian. So we went. Jim grabbed an extra fire shelter, gloves and a brush jacket to protect me.
As we crawled through the mountain roads, repeatedly we drove over downed trees, under sagging power lines and through active fire jumping back and forth across the pavement. We talked about the burning live truck from KNBC and I told Jim about the last time I was in this bad of a spot, when I was held hostage by a crazy man in Pinehurst, NC who said he invented the airbag before Volvo. He locked me in his office and would not let me leave until I had sex with him. I thought I would have to throw my tripod through the window of the locked room or knock the guy unconscious with a brick battery, fortunately he had a weak bladder and had to open the door after three hours, that is when I pushed my way out. The 6pm producer was pissed that I did not come back with the airbag story.
We finally got to downtown Julian. It was crawling with urban fire fighters and their pavement queens and reporters in shorts and t-shirts wielding stick mics and cans of hair spray. Jim cringed at the sight. We went to the dip site for the helicopters behind the post office where five of them were performing a magnificent ballet of figure eights with deafening rotors drowning out Jim's track on the wireless. Between low level aircraft I heard Jim say, "the winds are getting squirrelly, we are in a bad place, these firefighters are in a bad place, we need to get out of here." When a 34-year veteran of firefighting says, "go", I'm in the car. As we tried to make our way out of town, a giant "soft tree" had just fallen across the road. They are trees where the inside has completely burned out and just the shell of bark remains, it was too much to get the Explorer over and I was just thankful we weren't under it. We tried a different route through a burned out residential neighborhood. Jim pulled over in an open field that was a homestead a day before and took me on a tour of how fire burned the house. "Come here, look at this", he kicked a burning log the size of a regulation football, "this is an ember, the fire creates such an updraft that it throws these five pound chunks ahead of it, let's get out of here." We wound back down the mountain through torched fishing resorts and destroyed hunting lodges. At one point I asked if we could stop and shoot some active flames, Jim said "no", it was too dangerous with the powerlines on burned poles and the fire jumping around.
We made it back to the sat truck with nothing more than a barbecue smell infused in the upholstery and an understanding with the station that when Jim says it is not safe, we don't go. We learned then that a firefighter was killed in Julian while we were there. He was overrun by the flames.
We got home from San Diego Thursday, I went to sleep at 6:00 that night and did not get up until 10:00 Friday morning and still felt tired. I went to work Friday, but was so exhausted, I don't remember what I did all day. I had just got home around 7:30pm, put my car keys on the kitchen table and was contemplating going to the grocery store or going back to sleep. My cell phone rang and it was our assignment desk, "Jay got hit in the head while shooting football and is going to the hospital". I felt everything go numb and dizzy, I picked up my keys and started driving back toward the station.
For most of us, this might mean a bad headache or concussion but not for Jay. He has a shunt in his skull from brain surgery two years ago; one of the most solid people in Phoenix has a very delicate head. My phone rang again as I waited at the Central Avenue stoplight, it was the desk again, "can you go pick up his wife and take her to meet him at the hospital, she is pretty shook up." As I drove to Scottsdale, my head wanted to feel something big about this situation, but I think some coping mechanism does not allow the brain to do that, I just kept trying to remember how far north the 23 thousand block is.
During the drive to the hospital, Jay's wife and I laughed about how he must have went under the guillotine in a previous life to have so many things happen to his head in this one. But when we turned off the 101 to Indian School Road, her tone changed and I could hear how nervous she was. When we walked in the Emergency room waiting area, it was surreal to say the least. A heard of jumping gazelles in the morning fog would have seemed more familiar in the gray room than all of the people who greeted us. It felt like several minutes until I recognized these people whom I see everyday, our consumer reporter Rick, our news director and his wife, the station manager. They were brining in a neurosurgeon to do emergency brain surgery on Jay. Over the next six hours, our crowd doubled to include other photographers, Jay's son, Jay's son's boss, our chief photographer, executive producer, the reporter he was with when he was hit who gave us a first person play-by-play of what happened. They stopped the football game for 20 minutes so they could land a helicopter on the field to air evac Jay to the hospital. Several parents in the stands had Jay's hit on tape and showed it to the reporter. Jay was following the running play in front of him when a tackle came down the sidelines, broadsided him on his right side, the camera side and knocked him backwards. When he hit the ground, his head whipped back and bounced hard off the packed turf. Fortunately, Paul the reporter knew of Jay's brain's history and they called 911 quickly.
Here are the lessons I learned in these 36 hours:
No story is worth putting your life in danger. I know if we had told the station Jim and I would NOT going to Julian, yes we would be badmouthed in the newsroom, but consider the source. The people talking smack don't leave the air conditioned/heated building other than to go to lunch, they are the same people who would not give a damn about you burning to death in your news car other than it would give them a lead story for the day. But it would only be for one day and then they would be mad that you died and cannot shoot the weather live shot the next day. The people who really love and care about you don't care if you don't get the story; there will be another story tomorrow just as long as you are around to see tomorrow. I knew better, now I am reminded that I know better.
Just because you can go there, does not mean you should. At first, Jim and I were so excited about our new level of access to fires; you don't get that in Arizona or New Mexico, the states we both know so well. But by the third day, when we saw gaggles of reporterettes prancing through the ashes trying not to get soot on their rayon suits and photogs in shorts, t-shirts and Tevas tromping through smoldering ruins, he knew someone was going to get hurt. Fire fighters wear those obnoxious yellow shirts and funny green pants for a reason. Radiant heat can melt synthetic fabrics to your skin, even the vainest reporter does not want that kind of exfoliation. A single hot ash or ember can set cotton or wool ablaze. Unless you have x-ray vision on your camera, you can't see the sharp debris and smoldering coals under the coating of ash you are walking on, fire boots are expensive and uncomfortable, but they will save your feet. Jim's tip for making fire boots fit: the first time you wear them, pour a cup of hot water or coffee over them while they are on your feet and then walk them dry, they will mold to your feet perfectly.
Make sure your health insurance and emergency contacts are in order. I am a photographer, I suck at paperwork and I know it. But we have physically demanding jobs that sometimes (often) get us hurt. I have never been to the Emergency Room because of something I did on my own time. It has always been the broken ankle from falling out of the sat truck, the whiplash from the head on collision in the station car, the busted up knee cap from getting hit while shooting high school football. Close your eyes for a second and think about all the things that hurt right at this minute (aching right knee, pinch in the lower back on the left side of the spine, slight headache), and that is after a normal day. When we get hurt, it is serious stuff and it is not the time to figure out if you had the HMO and should go to St. Joe's or if you have the PPO and should go to Good Sam or nothing at all and have to go to County. Most companies do their re-enrollment for health insurance around the beginning of the year, make sure you have good coverage even if it means a few extra bucks out of your paycheck. Believe me, doing some extra paperwork and losing a few dollars every month may not feel good now, but those five digit hospital bills hurt a lot worse.
Consider disability insurance. I am the income in my household of one. But I have to use two hands to count my fellow photogs who have left shooting due to disability. God forbid any of us should get hurt to the point of not being able to work, but we put ourselves in that danger everyday. If you are independently wealthy or married an heir to a giant family fortune, then you don't have to worry about this. But if you are like me and depend on the Eagle to fly every other Friday, disability insurance makes sure the piggy bank gets something even when we are too hurt to work for it. I look at it the same way I view my law enforcement grade pepper spray, if I have it, I won't need it.
I am happy to report that Jay's surgery went very well. He is in great spirits, talking and walking a little bit. When I saw him the other night, his first question... "How is my camera?" The lens hood fell off and the insides are shook up a little, but nothing we can't fix or replace.
Go with your gut, shoot with both eyes open, take care of each other, there are more stories tomorrow and cameras can be replaced, but there is only one you, so take care of you.
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