Monday, July 18, 2011

Outstanding in My Field (of Fire)

Have you ever seen a big grass fire, up close? Waves of heat shimmer as you try to look across the burning expanse, obscuring far-off details that aren't already hidden by the smoke. The smell of charred grass gets in your nose, like someone spilled something on the charcoal in your backyard grill.

During my newspaper days there were a couple of big grass fires that I was sent out to cover. I didn't take any notes; there wasn't a lot of information available at the scene. Grass is on fire, and, maybe, other stuff. Take pictures!

I gained a lot of respect for the firefighters, of course. Fighting fires is dangerous work, and many of the men I spoke to told me that they feared grass fires more than any other kind. It was the wind, that abundant Oklahoma wind, that made fighting grass fires unpredictable. And dangerous. A crew could be in the middle of a field, pushing back the fire line, when a change in wind direction or intensity could leave them suddenly surrounded by flames.

As a novice reporter/photographer, I didn't know all that yet. My first lesson in the unpredictability of a grass fire came when I returned to my car after shooting photos for an hour. Arriving on the scene, I parked on the grass shoulder of the road. When I returned, the grass was blackened within 2 feet of my front bumper.

I'd like to say I learned my lesson right then, but a couple of years later my zeal for getting a great photo made me do something stupid.

We heard the call on the police scanner in the newsroom: a wheat field was on fire, out near the federal prison (I have a good prison story I'll save for another day). I grabbed my camera and headed to the scene, where I parked a respectful distance across the road from the blazing wheat field.

It was a large field, and all the firefighting action was out in the middle, several hundred yards from where I stood. So I hopped the fence and waded out into the shoulder high wheat, determined to get closer.

By the time I got close enough to start snapping pictures, the fire fighters in their brush pumper trucks had it under control. Suddenly, my right eye still at the camera's viewfinder, I remembered.

The wind.

I lowered the camera and looked around me. For a hundred yards all around me, I was surrounded by wheat stalks almost as tall as I was. If the wind had changed, if the fire wasn't quite under control, I could have been roasted before I could run back to the road.


One of the brush pumpers drove in my direction and made a slow turn. I could see it was from the prison. They let non-violent inmates serve as volunteer firefighters. I waved. One of them waved back. Then they squirted me with a hose, turned, and drove back to the prison gates. I stood there for a moment, decided I was grateful, and headed back to my car.


Postscript: I'm pretty sure none of the photos I shot in the wheat field came out. The photo above is from my first grass fire, the one that almost claimed my car. It ran on the front page of the El Reno Daily Tribune.

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