Tag Archives: California

My Harrowing Experience in a Wildfire

The rampaging wildfires in California that have claimed the lives of at least six people are a reminder of the unpredictability of nature but also the bravery of those on the front lines fighting such blazes.

The so-called Carr Fire — one of several raging in California — consumed nearly 100,000 acres and destroyed more than 700 homes in just a week.

For me, devastation on such a scale is difficult to comprehend.

My first — and thankfully only time – reporting on a wildfire was one that destroyed “only” 300 acres and one house. By way of comparison, the Carr Fire was more than 300 times the size of the one I experienced.

Still, it was memorable.

It was May 16, 1991, and I was in Saranac Lake, N.Y., in the Adirondacks. It was around 3 p.m. and there was suddenly a caravan of fire trucks from neighboring Lake Placid wailing through the downtown.

Oddly, they were not stopping anywhere in the village but were making a beeline out of town.

That there were so many of them, that they were in such a tearing hurry and the route they were taking just made my news senses tingle.

So, I did what I’ve done since I was a kid in the Bronx: I followed the fire trucks.

That led me about 10 miles out of town to a hamlet called Vermontville. It did not take long to see the plumes of smoke.

The fire had leap-frogged ahead of efforts to contain it. More than 300 firefighters from 35 departments were called. The authorities at the time said it was the biggest wildfire in the area in 20 years.

“Water! Where the hell is my water?!” could be heard crackling over radios as firefighters dragged hoses. Later, civilian volunteers brought milk cans filled with water for the soot-covered firefighters working in the 84-degree heat.

What I am about to say next falls under the heading of “Don’t try this at home”: I roamed around alone and unescorted, snapping pictures and taking notes.

At one point I was busy taking a photo and there suddenly was this “Whooooosh!” and burst of heat. While my back was turned, flames had swallowed a tree, quickly reaching its crown.

Talk about great balls of fire.

It was like getting an instant sunburn.

This was a time before cellphones, so I found a home that was being evacuated, interviewed the occupants (one of whom was disabled and being removed by a State Police helicopter) and asked if I could use their landline.

I called my then-wife to tell her where I had gone and to assure her I was fine (I left out the part of the burning tree and that I was calling from an evacuated home) and then quickly called my editor to save me some space in the next day’s paper.

My story and photo were above the fold with the headline “Fire ravages Adirondacks” and a breathless lede: “VERMONTVILLE — A wind-whipped fire ravaged about 300 acres of woodlands here Thursday, destroying one house, forcing families to flee their homes and injuring seven people.”

Now take my limited experience and amplify it by a 10,000 percent and think of those firefighters and smoke jumpers who do this kind of thing for a living.

My wife and I visited the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park in Arizona where 19 “hot shots” (wildland firefighters) perished fighting a wind-whipped fire outside Yarnell, Az., in 2013.

It was the largest number of firefighters killed in a single incident since the 9/11 attacks.

Whether it’s one firefighter saving a child from a burning building or a team of them trying to saving an entire community, what these people do is awe-inspiring and deserve our respect and gratitude.






Taking Fear to New Heights

For me, fear is an invisible emotional or mental “weakness” that I have historically refused myself permission to give in to.

My attitude has long been that it’s an effort of will: You can push through fear and pretend it’s not really there.

But I learned something recently that turned that line of thinking on its head.

Here is my story:

I have had a lifetime fear of heights, with many a social engagement marred by my acrophobia

It’s one reason why, for instance, I can barely watch a trailer for “The Walk” about Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, much less think about seeing the entire movie.

The very first Broadway play I saw was “Deathtrap” at the Music Box Theater in the late ’70s with my mom. I was very excited until we got there and I realized we had mezzanine seats.

I was OK when the lights went out and we could focus on the play but when the lights were back on and I could see where we were, well, to borrow a phrase from my younger son: I think I threw up a little in my mouth.

Same thing when I bought tickets for a Cirque du Soleil show at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. When we got there, I discovered the seats were so high and on such a steep pitch that I could not stay.

My wife and son watched the show as I climbed the stairs — almost on all fours — and waited in the hallway for the performance to finish.

So when my wife was planning a visit to Big Sur in California along the Pacific Coast Highway, she emphasized that she wanted me to be OK with the heights and narrow, curving roads.

I watched a YouTube video of a drive along the road and thought: “Yeah, I can handle this. I don’t want to be a party pooper on our trip and she is excited to show this to me.”

You can figure out the rest.

About an hour into the drive, we reached the serpentine cliffs. I was white-knuckled, my palms sweaty.

The low point came when we crossed the narrow Bixby Bridge, which seems to levitate over this canyon. I wanted to kiss the pavement when we made it to the other side.

I never relinquish the wheel because I am a lousy passenger — I get car sick easily.

So when we headed out for another two hours on these steep, cliffside roads, my wife knew I was in trouble when I abruptly pulled over and asked her to drive.

I could not go on. And here’s the thing: I did not stop being afraid just because I stopped driving.

I was curled up in the back seat, my face buried into my shoulder, one hand gripping the door handle until I had no feeling in my fingers and rhythmically praying.

I’ve long resisted limitations – either of my own doing or outside forces — being placed on my ability to get things done.

You’re talking about a guy whose signature phrase is “It’s fine” or “I’ll be fine” when confronted with an illness, a physical injury, lack of sleep or some kind of emotional hurt.

My act of bravery here was having the confidence to give into my fear instead of trying to pretend I could persevere.

What I learned was that it’s sometimes OK not to “man up” but to instead ask for help.

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