Aug. 3, 2010 — Everybody remembers the first time — it’s human nature.
Way back in 1999 I enjoyed my first summer working at the newspaper and learning my way around Lassen County when I got my first glimpse of what seems to be an unfortunate and all too frequent occurrence in our part of the country — a raging wildfire. Growing up in the city, I had no real experience with our kind of fire.
That day long ago the scanner in the newsroom toned and firefighters quickly responded to the Bass Hill area to knock down a vegetation fire. Dave Moller, then the newspaper’s editor, impatiently barked at me to hurry up, grab my camera and go get some fire pictures. He said I should get moving because he wanted flames. So I climbed into my old purple van and sped down Highway 395, not really knowing what to expect. What I experienced that day really opened my eyes.
As I approached the scene, I saw a helicopter hovering over a small pond scooping up a load of water in a big bucket, and I knew I must be close to the fire. About a mile or so down the road I came upon a large personnel carrier and a pickup truck nearly blocking one side of the highway. Several hundred yards in the distance I saw a long line of firefighters wearing backpacks, toiling with hand tools, hurriedly digging a firebreak in the tall grass and sagebrush. It looked as if they just about had the fire under control, and I thought I’d arrived too late to get any good photographs. But before I had a chance to say a single word of greeting, a firefighter in a pickup truck, apparently a supervisor, anxiously yelled an urgent warning into his handheld radio — something about a shift in wind direction.
The firefighters on the line instantly broke and sprinted back toward Highway 395. A few seconds later the fire — now fueled by the wind — came back to life, the flames nearly nipping at the firefighters’ heels as they narrowly escaped the inferno. They quickly piled into the personnel carrier and sped away. The supervisor in the pickup started off behind them, but I remained as the newly reinvigorated fire approached. I was going to get some fire photos with flames after all.
Two large trees stood majestically near the highway, and the sudden heat proved too much for one of them. With a nearly deafening hiss and roar it crackled into flames, and the fire consumed it from bottom to top in a matter of seconds. I’d never seen such a sight before. Of course I knew fire’s reputation as an elemental force, but I stood dumbstruck at this up-close-and-personal destructive display of raw, unstoppable power.
Suddenly I noticed the supervisor in the pickup truck had backed up alongside me. He leaned across the bench seat and pointed to a huge red and white air tanker making a steep turn off in the distance. He told me they were about to make a retardant drop to stop the fire from jumping the highway, and I probably didn’t want to be standing there when that happened.
“It’s really nasty stuff,” he advised. “You don’t want to get it on you.”
Sure enough, as I ran back toward my van, the sparks, embers and wind-whipped debris ignited a number of quickly spreading little fires on the other side of the road. I started backing my van down the highway as the air tanker rumbled slowly over my head, dumping a load of bright red retardant, instantly extinguishing all these new little fires and painting everything red.
Over the last decade, I’ve seen many wildfires in Lassen County, and my respect for the all the brave men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to protect our lives and property grows with every event. To them, I guess my tale is a common, mundane and maybe even boring story. But the truth is they have a very dangerous job, and they risk everything for us whenever they go to work.
So next time you see one of these brave men and women around town, don’t forget to say thank you for a job well done. Just imagine what our world would be if a scary fire started, and they didn’t risk their lives to go fight it.
So let me say thank you, again. I probably can’t say it enough.
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