If you have been watching the fire coverage from southern California you have undoubtedly seen most of us reporters fashionably clad in our yellow protective fire suits. I have been wearing the yellow suit myself but I have to admit I often feel a bit like a phony.
The firefighters wear the same yellow suits…but they never look like ours do. The suits the firefighters wear are darkened by smoke, soot and dirt as well as by a lot of sweat. The suits worn by the reporters are usually clean and bright yellow. The reporters' suits don't show any of the hard work and hard wear so obvious on the firefighters' clothing.
That's not to say the reporters wear the protective gear just for show. Usually wearing the suits is required to get into areas close to the fire that are closed to the public. Fire officials want to know that, if things turn bad, reporters have at least a little bit of protection. And whenever I get close enough to the flames to really feel the heat it is comforting to know that my clothes are unlikely to catch fire.
Still, in 20 years of covering wild fires in the west only once have I really needed my fire suit. I was reporting on a huge fire in Montana's Bitterroot Valley. The fire had threatened several towns but then turned and seemed to be burning well back in the wilderness. But suddenly the winds changed and the fire started burning directly toward the fire camp where firefighters kept their food, their tents and their equipment.
Firefighters raced around the camp, stamping out flaming embers as they fell among the tents. They pulled fire hoses to the edge of the camp wetting down the perimeter to hold the fire back. At times the smoke was so thick we had to lie on the ground to find enough air to breathe.
The fire was so intense it created is own wind, tiny tornadoes called fire whirls. One of the fire whirls picked up the firefighters' huge mess tent. Big metal tents poles began to fly through the air. I was afraid I was going to be hit by one of them and looked for someplace solid for protection. The only solid thing I could see nearby was a line of porta potties. I ran over and threw myself on the ground behind them.
I heard some tent poles smash into the porta potties and I felt them shaking in the strong wind. I suddenly started to worry that the toilets might blow over on top of me…and even if I survived no one would rescue me.
Luckily the porta potties remained standing and as I stood up I saw that my fire suit was covered in dust and soot and smoke. For once I didn't feel like a phony in my yellow suit.