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By Lynn French
Photographer KPNX-TV Phoenix, AZ
There is just something about summer. Warm nights, cold beer, hot car seats, overly air conditioned news rooms. Here in Phoenix, traffic eases up tremendously with the exodus of snow birds and ASU students. This is also when college students inundate our newsrooms with resume tapes and the summer interns wink and wiggle their way to getting a photog to stay on his own time to shoot stand-ups in the parking lot. Their desperation to join the working world of TV news is only surpassed by my desire to have summers off.
I relish any time I can go and spread some of our reality on the world of collegiate budding journalists. My favorite question, "who here wants to be a network correspondent?" There is always at least one. To which I let them know they have better odds of playing in the NBA than being on NBC Nightly News. (To which the anchorette-wannabe responds, "But I don't play basketball".)
When the professor introduces me, they turn to me and have to ask, "Where did you go to college?" It is a proud moment when I proclaim I am product of New Mexico public schools...Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, the Greyhounds...the dog, not the bus. It is always followed with "where is THAT?" The little cow college is a few miles from the Texas/New Mexico border where the nearest Taco Bell is 90 miles away in Roswell. Needless to say, I have a Bachelor's degree in "create your own entertainment" with a minor in sand volleyball and grain based alcohol mixology (there is an ethanol plant in P-ville, the smell of slightly burned baked potatoes always hangs in the air).
Recently I was invited to the University of Massachusetts Amherst to work with the students at their campus TV station. As a co-worker at KPNX watched me dub off classic Charles Kuralt stories and Sky 12 car chases in a potpourri of TV journalism, "Where are you taking this?" When I answered UMass, he face lit up with his reply, "Wow, great school, the Minutemen." I suddenly realized what it felt like for people who went to major universities. There was no blank stare while they envisioned map of the United States and zoomed into the southwest trying to recall the void between Texas and Arizona and imagine little green aliens racing my Ford Ranger to the Taco Bell on Highway 70 for the last Nachos Bell Grande before they closed at 9:00 PM. No, they instantly saw Division I football, big white marble Ionic columns in front of the library and smart students striding between classes pondering Plato and nuclear fission in the same thought. My college had a great rodeo team, was built at the same time as the state prison using the same schematics and we worked hard to try to turn the fountain into a solid block of green jell-o (it just gets really slimy).
When I walked into UVC-TV 19 on the UMass campus, a senior named Aaron was clicking away at non-linear editing as fast as any editor I have seen in market 15. His buddy Joel soon joined us and discussed a show on student government policy they were taping that night as he pounded out a term paper on Dennis Kusinich's recent visit to the school. A while back , I watched a little of the Donald Trump NBC show "The Apprentice" and thought, not a single one of these schmucks would survive in a TV newsroom. But these guys will be just fine. Throughout the day, I met with students and critiqued their stories on campus riots, sports teams and the war in Iraq. It does my heart good to see our next generation of journalists ready to handle hard topics and execute them with the viewer in mind rather than going for the easy car wreck on the interstate (how disappointed they will be when they go to work at most TV stations).
My honoraria for my day at the TV station was a serious college sweatshirt. Not the cheap silk screened t-shirts from the irregular bin I have from my alma-mater, but a heavy hooded maroon mass of fleece with UMASS in stitched block letters across the front with Amherst on the cuff. Even though it was a toasty day when I arrived back in Phoenix, I wore it with sweaty pride through the airport. I was stopped THREE times by folks asking me when I went there, which was followed by their proud proclamation of their major and year of graduation. I have never gotten that in my ENMU gear, just a rare "Enema-U, where's that?"
If it were not for the years of assumed debt and lack of free time, I would love to go back to college. There is no greater opportunity than learning for the sake of learning. That is why I begged to go to fire school this year. That has become my name for the Arizona Wildland Firefighting Academy. You may remember the hard lessons I learned last year during the California wildfires about personal safety and knowing when to tell the station "No". Well, this year the station ponied up for three of my co-workers and me to get properly trained for wildfire coverage.
Let me say this first. It is the hardest damn work I have ever done in my life. Along with a week of classroom instruction, we camped overnight in the Prescott National Forest, dug miles of fire line (okay, it was actually 3/4 of a mile, but it felt like we scraped dirt to the California boundary), then set a prescribed burn and mopped it up. Only folks who have shot with a TK-76 will know the back pain I felt for a week afterwards.
The biggest thing I learned: guys who will face a 50 foot flame front with nothing more than a shovel and a two-way radio are scared to death of the media. But after they learned that our cameras weigh the same as their chain saws, they found us to be a little less despicable.
As fun as proper Pulaski swinging is to learn, we also had several days of classroom instruction. Here are a few phrases from class that I have started applying to many other aspects of life:
Fire can run uphill faster than you can. Don't try this at home or in your local foothills. An easy way to illustrate this is by striking a match. If you hold the match flat it burns at a constant rate. Now tip the head of the burning match downward and you will see the flame move up the match much faster. This is caused by two things: radiant heat and convective heat. The fuel ahead of the fire is closer to the flame than on a flat or downward surface and the heat of the fire dries out and heats up fuel so that it burns easier. If you are covering a wildfire, do not shoot from the top of a hill with fire below you.
Stupid Hurts. Safety Prevents Meetings. Now when I look back on all the times we have tried to sneak through barricades and back roads to get in front of a wildfire to get the good shots we thought we were being denied, I am thankful that God watches over fools. If they are not letting you into an area, there is probably a good reason, like the fire is headed there. No shot is worth 3rd degree burns or being cooked to death in your news vehicle. As I learned in California last year during the San Diego wild fires, the fire can launch football sized burning embers a half mile ahead of itself spreading the fire faster than just the flame front. If you are not allowed into an area, shoot the barricade and prove to your viewers that they don't want anyone in there.
You never want to have to come back to a fire you said was out. Isn't that the truth. When the Fire Boss reports to the Incident Commander that the fire is out, the fire better be out. 'Nuff said.
As we get deep into fire season, there are a few things we can do to help our image "as the media" (not to be confused with Charlie Hatfield's brilliant Evil Media). I can't guarantee it will get you better access, but it may help you be less hated.
Follow the signs to the ICP. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, just go straight to the Incident Command Post when you first arrive at a wildland fire. If you try to find fire crews on your own, the first thing the squad boss will ask you, "Did you check in at the ICP?" As much as they don't want you there, they are also doing it for your safety. The Incident Commander needs to know you are out there so if they need to get you out of there, they know you are there. Going to the ICP will also help you with three major storytelling aspects:
Facts---This is the most up to date source for acreage burned, fire activity in the last few hours, where the fire is headed, weather conditions, man power, evacuations... all that stuff you and your reporter need to keep the viewers informed. Also, if you go bugging the fire boss at the fire line for this info, he will tell you to check in at the ICP.
Where your local folks are working--- If you are following your local fire department as they go to do structure protection in threatened towns, the PIO at the ICP can pinpoint exactly where they are working and whether you can safely do a story on them. If you go renegade and try to find them on your own or they try to lead you in via cell phone without Incident Command's permission, you can be arrested, you will be denied all access to the fire and you just as may go home and let the competing stations eat your lunch.
The big map--- It is one of the better liveshot tools that gives the viewers a feel of what the fire is doing right now. At every ICP there will be a briefing area with a giant map of the fire. Each day the fire has burned will be denoted by a different color and you can immediately see the day the fire blew up and days it calmed down. Your reporter can show viewers roads and towns they are familiar with and how the fire is affecting those. It gets one of two reactions from the viewer, either "Oh sh**! I better take this fire seriously" or "Thankfully, it is not me". The big map liveshot has a few other benefits, it is the safest place to be during extreme fire behavior, you have the latest information at your reach before each liveshot and there are relatively clean bathrooms.
Fire clothes and safety gear. If your station is sending you to wildfires, it is their responsibility to make sure your have the tools to do it as safely as possible. Most Incident Commands will not let you go on the fire line to shoot video if you do not have the proper equipment. Granted, it costs about $1200 to outfit a wildland firefighter, but you don't have to go quite that far. The five main things you need:
Proper wildland fire fighting boots: lace-up, leather boots with at least an 8 inch upper with Vibratim lug soles and no steel toes (the steel will heat up and burn your toes). They ain't comfy. At first you will think you are wearing cinderblocks on your feet. Invest in some good wool or cotton socks (no synthetics, they can melt into your skin). To break the boots in, pour a cup of hot water or coffee IN them and over them, put your feet in them and lace up tight---I am totally serious---then walk them dry. It will take about 14 hours, but they will feel a hundred percent better after that. You can pick up adequate fire boots at some Army/Navy stores or western wear shops for about $100. These will do fine if you are going out on the line for a few hours a day and mostly riding in a Forest Service truck. After my week at fire school and the two days on the fire line, digging, hiking, carrying stuff, I would have paid someone a thousand bucks to carry me back to camp, my feet killed me. Because of that, I invested in a pair of Whites. You will hear experienced wildland fire fighters talk about Whites and Nicks. They are the Ferrari and Lamborghini of fire boots (even though you don't go very fast in them). They are custom cut to your foot and weight distribution and are engineered to make you walk with a longer stride. They are more comfortable than my most expensive pair of running shoes, like five pound slippers. Of course for $406 they better be. If you really like covering wildland fires and live in a place where they are as guaranteed as Christmas, it is something to think about (the station bought the $100 pair that now live in my news unit as "the reporter pair", I coughed up for the Whites).
Fire Shelter: It is that baked potato wrap that comes in a yellow canvas box that you hope you will never have to use. They save your life by trapping breathable air around you and reflecting radiant heat. There are several folks in Arizona who owe their lives to the giant foil folders. During the Dude Fire here in 1990, a crew was overrun by the fire and had to deploy the shelters. The folks who did it right lived. Those who tried to out run the fire wrapped in the shelter were killed. As a fire entraps you, you are breathing hot gases and heat that will cook your airway from the inside out. I am not going to try to explain proper deployment here, it is best to experience it. Contact your local Forest Service or State Lands office and ask if they can have a safety officer bring some practice shelters to your station and give a class to your staff on proper deployment. Fire shelters will run your station about $190 each, but they don't go rotten and can be used for many fire seasons and could save your life. The bean counters have no reason to turn their nose up at that. Also, you will NOT be allowed on the fire line without one. If your station will not buy them, you can sometimes beg one from the supply cache at the ICP if you are willing to sign your life away. If you are really into covering wildfires, you can get your own through several fire fighter supply sites on the internet.
Goggles: In the summer of 2002, I had finished my stint at the Rodeo-Chediski fire, the worst wild fire in Arizona history---a half million acres and 400+ homes. I had turned in my fire gear and was walking back to the satellite truck to get my camera to leave when I looked up at the orange glow in the sky from the fire and a giant piece of ash fell in my eye. It was like having a thousand splinters in my cornea. I grabbed other people's water bottles and started pouring them into my eye with no relief. Since I had plane tickets departing the next day out of Phoenix, I made the five hour trip home with my eye taped shut. I showed up at the NPPA National Convention the next day uncontrollably winking at people (I am still trying to explain my way out of it). Moral of the story, when you are at a fire, wear goggles, they don't look cool, but it will save your eyesight. You can get these at any hardware store for under ten bucks.
Flame resistant shirt and pants. They are probably the most unstylish things you will ever see on-air talent wear with pride. You know the look: bright bumble bee yellow shirt and pine green pants. They are made of a material called Nomex. It will burn when exposed to direct flame but will not continue to burn when removed from contact with the flame unlike synthetics that melt into your skin or cotton that continues to burn. Essentially, if a piece of hot ash or ember lands on you, it will burn the Nomex, but as soon as you slap it out, it will stop burning. It also protects you from the radiant heat (a little). The yellow shirts run around $60 and the pants are between $80 and $110. Like the fire shelters, you can probably borrow a set from Supply in a pinch, but don't expect them to fit like an Armani suit.
Hard Hat: I don't recommend the pith helmet type the fire fighters wear with the brim that goes all the way around, it is impossible to shoot with your camera on your shoulder and wear one of these. Instead beg, borrow or acquire the classic construction worker type with just a bill on the front. Hard hats don't cost a lot, if your city is building a new stadium, you can get one for free by doing a few stories on it. There are a lot of stories we cover that require hard hat use, so the station has no reason not to get a few. Plastic is better than metal for wildland fire coverage for two reasons: metal gets hot and attracts lightning.
You will see fire fighting suppliers offer respiratory protection in the form of filtering devices that fit across the front of your face. In a decade of covering wildland fires, I have never seen a fire fighter wear one of those. If it is really heavy smoke and wind, they will put a bandanna over their nose and mouth, but it is wood fiber not asbestos. Unless you are asthmatic, breathing in wood smoke and some ash won't hurt you. The particles are huge in the respiratory sense and get caught in your nose and mouth before they could get to your lungs. If the fire has moved into structures, it is important to be more careful as it is burning insulation, plastics and chemicals.
Actually, photographers are great at having common sense about how to dress and conduct themselves around fire crews and the command post. It is our reporters that we need to keep in check. The worst nickname your reporter can get at a wildfire from the fire fighters is "princess", especially male reporters (it is the worst nickname I can put here within decency guidelines). Before you leave the station, make sure they have at least blue jeans, polo shirts or t-shirts, rugged shoes (athletic shoes at the bare minimum) and a baseball cap. They can leave anything that requires dry cleaning at the station, it is going to come back smelling like barbecued trees anyway. No pearls, no 1K diamond earrings, no shoes that you can't run uphill in. Our wildfire expert, Jim Paxon, my partner in California last year and a 34 year veteran of wildland firefighting still makes fun of the LA and San Diego reporters we saw last year wobbling through the muddy fire camp in four inch stilettos, brushing ash from their white suits and whining non-stop. They will seriously hurt your credibility and any chance of getting on the fire line. If they can't get beyond their own vanity to cover a story correctly, it is time to have a serious talk with the news director about getting you a real reporter.
A few necessary items to take with you:
Lots of bottled water for drinking and cleaning
Sunscreen and lip balm
MREs---when you are hungry enough, they taste pretty good
a pillow (if the town is evacuated, hotels are closed, guess where you are sleeping?)
plastic rain poncho (good to put over camera between live shots to keep the ash out of it)
Can of compressed air for blowing ash out of cameras and edit decks
Costco sized bottle of Advil or aspirin
Some terms reporters often screw up that you can set straight:
Burnout---removing fuel between the active fire and the line where they are controlling the fire. It is a crew based decision and is made on the fire line. (Like a reporter and photographer deciding where to do a live shot)
Back Fire---changing the direction of the fire by intentionally setting fires to strengthen the control line, usually involves hundreds of acres. This is a command based decision and comes from the ICP (Like the news director deciding where do to a live shot).
Back Fires involve burning out, but Burning Out is not necessarily a Back Fire.
Backing Fire---This is when a fire is burning against the wind. If you remember from your Smokey Bear days in grade school, the fire triangle is Fuel, Oxygen, Heat. Take away any one of those components and fire cannot exist. The wind increases the amount of oxygen the fire gets and as long as there is fuel, the fire will burn into the fuel, that includes against the wind.
Contain---keeping the fire in a certain geographical area (the fire has been contained to the Salt River gorge).
Control---percentage of the fire that has line around it (the fire is 70% controlled).
Type II crew--- fire line diggers and scrapers, they are not put in bad situations. They generally are kept in their geographic area.
Type I crew---highly trained wildland firefighters such as Hot Shots and Smoke Jumpers. They are a national resource and can be called to anywhere in the United States and do the most dangerous work at a fire.
Strike Team---5 like resources such as 5 bulldozers or 5 heavy tankers.
Task Force---5 unlike resources such as 2 helicopters and a Type II hand crew and 2 water tenders.
Acres, miles and chains---Fires are measured in acres (the Biscuit Fire has burned 450 acres). Distance between the fire and landmarks is measured in miles (the Pack Rat Fire is four miles from Show Low). The fire moves in chains (the Three Forks Fire is moving at three chains per hour). A chain is equal to 66 feet.
One of my favorite stories to do during any wild fire is where it gets it's name. The name is given by the Incident Commander (highest ranking fire fighter when the fire starts). Sometimes it is something boring like a local land mark. Often it comes from the point of origin (the Rodeo-Chediski fire was two fires that grew together, one was started at the rodeo grounds, the other in Chediski Creek). But sometimes they have a sense of humor behind them. A few years ago, a series of small fires in the Prescott area were named for various Simpsons characters (the Marge Fire, the Homer Fire, the Bart Fire).
Obviously, there are years of instruction devoted to learning about fire behavior, the Incident Command structure and firefighting. If this peaks your interest, start checking in the fall for fire schools in your area. The big ones are Colorado, Arizona, Texas, Idaho and New York, but wild fires happen in every state and they deserve accurate coverage. Even if you don't have a desire to swing a Pulaski, it feels great to learn about something that saves peoples lives and homes and will make you a safer and smarter photographer in the field.
Master's Degree at major university in Mass Communications $34,000
Fluffy sweatshirt with University name that people instantly recognize $82
Extra cash I will see in my paycheck because of it $0
One week at Wildfire Academy $250
Fire gear I might wear ten times a year $880
Coming home in one uncharred piece---priceless
I love learning and have the utmost respect for anyone who can hunker down for the two or five years it takes to get an advanced degree. But paying the bills and having a few free hours each week to ride my bike, do yard work and help on a friend's ranch are what I need to do right now. And I am really impressed with our crop of summer interns this year, no wink, no wiggle, they answer the phones and consider it a privledge to go on a live shot at the County Attorney's office and roll up AC cords. They are learning well, as I hope to do too.
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