Update: Follow-up story under my Published Articles page, if you’re interested.
I saw the smoke from at least a mile away, black against the blue sky of an early summer morning; a fire truck screamed past me, with many more to come.
You don’t plan for fires like this one, not really. We’d heard it on the scanner, I wasn’t busy, and so I was the one stepping over fire hoses that snaked across the highway, dodging firefighters with oxygen tanks strapped to their backs and masks hanging around their necks, breathing in the heavy, acrid stink of a burning building.
After three years as a professional journalist, you’d think I’d have covered a working fire by now. But I haven’t. And this one, calling in every volunteer fire department within half an hour, shooting flames high above the power lines, made my heart race and my stomach feel hollow (though that could also have something to do with missing breakfast, now that I think about it).
I parked below the scene, in a car sales parking lot, then threaded my way past firefighters and their trucks and an ambulance and anxious, running people, just praying no one challenged me. I walked through people’s yards, dew not yet dried soaking the hem of my pants.
Smoke was — I really can’t think of a word to describe it. It boiled out in towering pillars, black and brown and gray, swirling, agitated, from every window and crevice of the barn-turned-furniture store. The air conditioner was breathing out smoke; it writhed out from the seals of the siding, under crevices of the roof, between doors and their frames and windows and theirs.
When the flames shot through the roof, I felt the wall of heat slam into my body. The unseasonably cold morning was suddenly hot, I was pulling off my jacket, seeking refuge across the road with neighbors who watched, curious and concerned. Water ran down the highway in streams, splashed over shoes and soaking my feet.
The owner was crying, I think. He was shaking when he talked to me, told me he couldn’t remember his middle name, let alone answer questions. “Everything is in there, not just business stuff, personal stuff, records,” he said to his friend, bewildered, as the roof caved in and sparks flew upwards and pine trees waved their branches in the unnatural breeze.
You can read my story here, and see the photo gallery here. I didn’t actually write the sentences. Blocked in by fire trucks, I read my notes to a coworker over the phone, who formed an article out of them. He magnanimously gave me the byline since it was my reporting, but we should have shared it.
And now I’m struggling to find the words to convey the raw, destructive power I felt and saw this morning for a follow-up story for tomorrow. (I’ll post it here after it runs.)
And I’m finding that sometimes, there just aren’t words enough to really make you understand. You’d have had to be there, to really know.