Wednesday, May 8, 2013

To Speak for a Fire Storm- Southern California

I never thought I'd witness a cumulo-nimbus (thunderhead cloud) be created from a wildfire, much less watch that thunderhead morph into a spinning funnel cloud. I had watched the videos in advanced fire behavior training suggesting such a thing was possible. I understood the mechanics of it from this training, but my instructors iterated (so as not to scare young squad bosses like myself) that such extreme fire behavior was exceptionally uncommon and not often seen by the average wildland firefighter. That iteration was back in the 1990s, before the breath of global climate change raised an eyebrow and before sprawling urban interface strained parched forests on a long-term basis.

The Grand Prix fire (among the first of the 11 arson firestorms set in the greater Southern California area in September/October of 2003) gave me this harrowing and pointed life first. I was a fire information officer. Prior to this moment, most of my efforts were spent in the fire information trailer, feverishly typing press releases with the constant and ever-changing status of the beast out my window. Twelve hour days typing an ocean of hot, roiling and ever-changing information with wind gusts up to 100 miles an hour pummeling our mobile trailer, left me drained and seemingly in need of a breath of hot, smoky air.

The wind died down enough in between press releases for me to leave the trailer: take a break. It was an in-between moment; the calm and exhausted 2 pm hour in fire camp. A time when all firefighters are fighting fire, reporters are generally gathering their thoughts in their vehicles or getting a bite to eat while we camp workers get a rare moment of quietude. I stood behind the information table watching with tummy turning awe, the ever-present cloud of smoke to my northwest moving/roiling with lightning in it's upper, ice-capped hump. It had become a cumulo-nimbus. I must have gone pale in color- I never expected to see this event. Never in my life; this is what we see in story books...

A young free-lance NPR reporter (refreshingly humble in demeanor) came to me looking for an update in fire status, curious perhaps of my pallor. The wind was increasing. My long hair whipped in the exotic, surreal energy of something rarely seen by an everyday average American girl.

I gave the reporter the latest press release, but remained ashen and distracted at the monster I was watching grip the San Gabriel mountains. The energy in that moment was monumental, other worldly.

Like any quality reporter, the NPR correspondent's curiosity was peaked at this FIO distracted out of her mind watching smoke rise. I recognized my own intensity and found the words to explain the mechanics of the natural phenomenon literally building in front of me. The reporter whipped out his recorder as I emptied my brain in a torent of what I'd always expected would be nothing more than mystical stories of strange past events. He asked me to start from the beginning, which concentrated my words.

All the while, the lightning filled thunderhead was gaining strength and funneling. The wind was gathered from all around us, desiring to suck us all in, though our distance and weight divined to resist the trepidatious temptation. Nothing else mattered in that moment. The few people outside were unable to look away. Gripped to abandon their charted course.

The dominance of the energy this tornado created sucked the energy from every part of a 10, 15, 20, 30 mile radius. Power lines near the fire edge sputtered and arched, firefighters close to the front fled. Even a few port-o-potties tumbled toward this firey monster.

It demanded my energy with it.

I spoke for the fire in that moment. Narrating physics in a perfectly non-scientific, yet palatable manner: Narrating an energy bigger than anything I'd witnessed before.


The NPR reporter left, only to be replaced by an endless wave of new regional and local reporters and other fellow fire information officers who picked up where I left off.

I lost my voice soon after that NPR interview, quite against my will. My cell phone didn't stop ringing for days after that. I tried to answer, tried to speak, write, help all the scared souls standing in the path of this storm but I stopped answering it.  Overwhelmed into a wordless fog.

Something shifted inside of me after narrating that moment in timeless history. Status quo lost relevance somewhere deep and my exhaustion was so consuming that I could not recognize it. I have been recovering, resting for 10 years now in some ways.

Fire does speak. I'm just now clearing that hot frog out of my throat...


  1. Wow! Powerfully illustrative. Perhaps I could see and feel the story because I know the writer. OR perhaps I felt like I was standing next to you, seeing what you were seeing because you told your story so well. Amazing.