Monday, August 30, 2010

Breaking News: Oak Knoll Fire

I covered for another reporter on Saturday and Sunday and was given Monday and Tuesday off as my "weekend." Tuesday afternoon, I sat down to watch the 6:00 news to see what was going on and get primed for work the next day.

After the usual video intro used everyday, I saw something different.

A graphic reading "Developing Story" was used, then there was live video of a huge column of smoke in Ashland.

A grassfire broke out next to I5 in Ashland and the weather conditions were just so (100˙, 15mph winds, humidity in single digits) that the fire spread quickly. After burning for about twenty or thirty minutes, witnesses say embers were carried by the wind over the freeway into a residential neighborhood.

There the fire set over a dozen homes on fire. Hundreds of firefighters from 15 agencies and three helicopters responded to the fire. The bad news: 11 homes were completely destroyed. Residents had nearly no time to prepare and most were evacuated out the front door as the back of the homes were on fire. They had no idea. The good news: Not a single person died or was injured.

There are so many smaller shorelines within this tragedy.
-Two Ashland PD officers rushed to the scene and ran door-to-door to evacuate people.
-One home housed a teacher who had all of his lesson plans in the garage. School starts soon and he has no curriculum.
-Some homes were burned completely to the ground. The only remnants are chimneys and shells of burnt cars.
-Some homes had a few walls still standing and residents could go in and sift through the burnt remnants for possessions. Others were kept from their condemned homes.
-Many of the homes had wooden shingles and dead vegetation that fueled the fire and allowed the fire to burn as quick as it did.
-A homeless man was arrested for starting the fire. It wasn't arson because police believe it wasn't intentional.

I heard from several people that the newsroom was crazy that evening. All of the dayside workers (who should have gone home around 6) stayed for the 11:00 show and even later. At 9pm I got a call asking if I could come in early in the morning and do some live remote shots in the 5-7 morning show. Of course, the answer is yes.

I woke up at 1:30a after barely four hours of sleep and got ready for the day. I got into the newsroom before 3 to look over the previous day's scripts and press releases about the fire to prepare for the live shots. The producer had me doing what's called a "straight live" each half hour at the top and bottom of the hour between 5-7. Straight live means that the camera is on me the entire time, there's no cutaway to a different video or shot or anything. First time I've been asked to do that.

I got out to the street where the fire took place and it was still dark except for street lights. My cameraman and I ran into some technical problems we couldn't figure out how to fix, so we were a bit late for our first hit. But it finally came and it went pretty well. I did a live interview with the Information Officer for Ashland Fire and another with a Volunteer who had been at a relief site nearby offering food, water, and a place to recover for evacuees and firefighters. She had been there since 6pm and hadn't left or slept in over twelve hours.

By the time I finished all of my hits in the morning show the sun had come up and I had the chance to walk through the street that had been burned. It looked like a war zone. Homes were collapsed or completely gone. Blackened shells of cars were still parked in driveways. Morning wind blew burned magazines through the empty street. The smell of smoke hung heavy throughout the neighborhood.

It was hard to wrap my head around all that had happened and what it meant to everyone who lived there.

Later in the day, I was assigned the story of following someone who was returning to their home and going through their home and looking at their possessions. I was told the story was supposed to me "emotional, and show devastation." After asking some neighbors for help, they found a woman who would be willing to talk with me. Danna wasn't able to get into her home and had a very positive attitude. I say positive not in relation to the tragedy that hit her street, but positive for anyone. As I interviewed her, I wasn't getting the outpouring of sadness that I felt that I needed to fulfill my producers' requests. So, I kept prodding. "What did you lose?" I asked. She responded, "It's just things. They're memories. I'll be able to take them with me." Then, I asked, "But those are things that can't be replaced, does that make you upset?" Danna paused for a moment, then looked back at her garage. Her garage roof had collapsed and just about everything inside was blackened. She said, "I didn't think about it till just now. But my mom used to make all of my clothes when I was a girl. And she made me this beautiful blue cape and a matching blue hat. I had kept it all these years. But it's probably gone to ashes now…but that's life." As she said that, her voice cracked and she started crying behind her sunglasses. I felt a strong twist of guilt in selfishly asking her something I knew would cause pain. Knowing that I got the obligatory crying shot, I steered the interview into the positive as much as possible afterward and Danna followed without an reinforcement needed. Once the interview finished, I approached her to take off the mic I had pinned to her collar earlier, but she misinterpreted my movement and opened her arms for a hug. We hugged and she thanked me and I thanked her. I had much more reason to thank her: for opening up, for trusting me, for not stopping the interview, for her strength to carry on despite everything.

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