A Complex Situation: Reporting, living under fire.

Nightscape (photo by Rose Olcott).

by Rose Olcott

August 15, 2016

A year later, this story dredges up panic. There were weeks of anxiety, loss and community that followed the first day of the Chelan Complex Fire. My children were evacuated and re-evacuated, hearts were broken and folks found solace in the quiet breaths in the day, scant as they were.

August 16, 2015

While I write this, flames perch a mile and a half from my home. Power on my street is restored, which is better than many can say, especially for those friends who just lost their homes. As of today, 99,445 acres have burned in our area with an estimated 50–75 homes lost.

The checker at Target looked at me and paused for a minute. “Are you okay?” she asked. I grimaced, and wiped my forehead, ash and sweat caked to my face. I realized that I was covered in dirt and smelled like smoke. It’s not that I had forgotten to change or shower or sleep, there just wasn’t time.

My lips cracked into a smile, “Yes, I’m fine,” I answered, sliding an SD card onto the counter. I was out of memory on my camera. Again.

My son tugged at me for the 147th time and waved a pack of gum in my face for approval. I surrendered, bought the gum and SD card, and headed the 30 miles back toward the fire — my story and my home.

Sometimes being a journalist includes dropping into a location to report on the events in the area. But sometimes being a journalist means schlepping your children into a car, evacuation bags in tow, and heading just blocks from your home to report on the fire that threatens your own community.

Within journalism ethics somewhere it is noted “thou shall not report about something you are intimately connected to.” Sometimes, though, the world turns to flames and you have to simultaneously report on a devastating situation while living in it.

The ethics waters get murky when you are shooting photos of a fire in your friend’s back yard or when you find a patch of flames where you are shooting and try to help an 86 year-old man out of his house so his neighbor can evacuate him. Or perhaps when you go to hug a friend who tells you their parents’ home was destroyed minutes before, and you, like a good reporter, tweet “structures confirmed burned.”

And sometimes, in journalism, you bury the lede.

The thunder on Friday morning shot my husband and me out of bed. My husband thought that we had hooligans breaking into our pub we live below. I had time to grab his ankle before he grabbed the baseball bat and attempted to run, half naked, upstairs. “Lightning,” I tried to make sense in spite of the early hour. “Hopefully not newsworthy.”

For the last few months in the Lake Chelan valley, we’ve lived in a tinder box. High heat and no moisture were the perfect combination for disaster. In an interview with the local Forest Service Fire Management Officer earlier this year, I asked about the possibility of a major fire in our area during the upcoming fire season. He winced. “We’re due.”

And the time had finally come. Lightning had met our drought-burdened valley and spot fires dappled the hills around Lake Chelan. The Butte, our town’s big brother of a mountain, our sentinel, looked as though it had been pricked with a dozen fiery pins.

Camera charged, I chased tufts of smoke early in the day until the wind picked up and the tufts became monstrous plumes being pushed in every angle. Helicopters, planes and giant DC-10 jets piloted by aerial cowboys, dropped water and retardant on the hills in hopes to quell the burgeoning fire.

The cowboy (photo by Rose Olcott).

A man with a scanner ran over to me, the known reporter on hand, “What are you doing here? Get over to the apple packing district. It’s burning down.”

My car eked through streets, vehicles parked akimbo on the side of the road, trunks open and haphazardly stuffed with belongings. Though it seemed that all of Chelan was engulfed, people were motionless, transfixed in awe by the inferno on the mountains, on the hillsides surrounding us.

Managing to find my way up toward the packing district, I was stopped short at the cemetery where a friend evacuated her horses to the safety of the green grass. The cemetery nested atop the river gorge — a gorge that the fire hopped over.

I peered over the river gorge where it had seemed that the fire had stopped.

A torrent of heat and wind blew up from the ravine threw me back. The fire had jumped the gorge and was fast approaching houses in the residential area of town.

When the fire jumped the gorge (photo by Rose Olcott).

The streets were cleared when I drove back down from the hill. Tracker planes guided DC-10 bombers that dropped 3,000 pound loads of retardant on houses, cars, lawns, streets, all of it.

In our small, otherwise bucolic part of Washington, it looked like war.

Across the gorge, the junk yard lit up as propane and acetylene tanks erupted flames and black smoke spewed across the valley. With my phone I shot video and tweeted “the junkyard’s on fire.”

The junkyard (Photo by Rose Olcott).

I drove the two blocks home and then finished a report in my car. I looked over and saw my daughter, standing precariously on a garbage bin, hosing down the roof. My husband was lugging our vitally important documents up to the car. My son sat on the stoop, drooping under the weight of a backpack full of his vitally important rocks and toys.

Seeing me, my daughter nonchalantly stopped watering and said, “Hey, Mom. How’s it going?”

I am tasked to report the news, and yet, sometimes you just can’t do your job. “Everything’s fine. Get the bags in the car.”