It starts with traffic over the scanner on my desk at the newspaper office. It’s mostly background noise, like disharmonic elevator music with static and nonsensical lyrics. We hear mundane stuff all day — pilots announcing their approach to one of the airports, police officers and other first responders exchanging information, the occasional call to Aero Methow Rescue Service. After a while, you can recognize some of the voices.
We don’t always catch the information the first time, but the dispatchers are good at repeating. They are crisp and efficient — I get the impression they don’t have time to waste — and they always sign off with a timestamp, as in “Okanogan 601, 14:52.”
The calls that get our attention are about fires.
The terse initial detail usually gives us little to work with and a lot to speculate about. Brushfire. Controlled fire that got out of control (don’t even get me started). Structure may be threatened. Sometimes the directions are explicit, sometimes so vague that firefighters can’t find the reported blaze, and have to ask the dispatcher for more information.
Because we are a few blocks from the Okanogan County Fire District 6 Twisp station, the next thing we hear is sirens, as does anyone else within hearing distance. And who among us does not think, “now what,” when a fire truck rumbles by, all lights and sirens?
I guess I should clarify that by “us,” these days I mean “me.” I’m usually the only news staffer in the building. So instead of looking around for someone I can delegate to go check it out, I designate myself, grab my camera and head for the door.
That’s how it was Monday afternoon, when I heard the first reports of a small brush fire on Twisp-Winthrop Eastside Road near Bear Creek Lumber. The scanner chatter intensified as stations were “toned” and firefighters began to organize their response.
I didn’t leave immediately. I knew that quite a few trucks would be headed that direction. I didn’t need to be in their way, so I waited until it sounded like they were established at the scene. As I drove toward the fire, it occurred to me that I usually look for the smoke. But on Monday, there was nothing to see anywhere but smoke. When I got close, I saw that Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow was handling traffic control — which meant telling everyone to turn and go back the way they came. He let me pass and helped me figure out where to park so I wouldn’t be in the way of the equipment. You gotta love small-town journalism.
Some of the firefighters know me and may say “hi” when they are not otherwise occupied. As a reporter, the thing you do not want to be at an incident like this is a nuisance. I keep my distance, don’t bother people and try to stay out of the way. I’m on my own for personal safety — it’s up to me to be aware of conditions and moving equipment (although I have occasionally been advised to move to a safer spot, thank you).
If you have never watched firefighters at work on scenes like this, you might be surprised. Don’t expect a movie set experience. The firefighters are not frantic, or dashing around, or yelling orders, or charging off without direction. Firefighters are extremely disciplined, and firefighting is all about strategy. They move steadily and purposefully, communicate and coordinate, look out for each other, work in shifts so no one becomes exhausted.
This fire was, thankfully, quickly contained. But you never know. Since 2014 and 2015, hearing scanner traffic about a fire is an instant adrenaline rush — not because we’re eager to cover a fire, but because it’s our responsibility to be there if we can. One thing that most people don’t understand about journalists is that we never wish for catastrophe, but when it happens, we want to be the ones reporting about it. I’ve covered plane crashes, horrific car accidents, house fires, deadly mudslides and murder scenes, and I never felt like I was there as a spectator.
That instinct doesn’t fade away. At the fire scene on Monday, it occurred to me that after 50 years in journalism (I started young), there’s nothing like being in the middle of a story, large or small. Because there may be a gazillion people on the planet but only one of them — me — is there at the scene, doing this work, so that the rest of you don’t have to listen to scanners all day.