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August 15, 2012 at 10:13 PM

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Fire safety lessons learned from covering wildfires


A fresh crew prepares to go in to fight the Taylor Bridge wildfire north of Thorp, Wash., Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that wildfires are unpredictable. Although this was my first time covering a fire of this size, growing up in Arizona and spending summers in the high desert, I feel fairly confident and savvy with my ability to do so. I'm not into taking unnecessary risks and take safety very seriously.

Yesterday, while covering the Taylor Bridge wildfire with several other journalists, we were sent a welcome reminder that a whip of the wind can change everything in a second.


Volunteers from left, Samantha Spencer, Alex Walker, Luke Parmenter and Liam Shaw help a neighbor cut a fire line in Horse Canyon as the Taylor Bridge wildfire burns Tuesday August 14, 2012.

To spare the details, we were up on the slope of a hill with several neighbors who were digging a fire line and beating it back with shovels, when the wind picked up, and sent us all scampering for the road. No one was hurt, but it proved to be a great reminder of these safety tips when in a fire situation.


The raging Taylor Bridge wildfire near Cle Elum has burned 60 homes and 26,000 acres and continues to spread Tuesday, according to a spokeswoman at the fire scene. More homes, farms and ranches are in the fire's path. This view looks east towards Ellensburg from the Thorp Prairie Road just north of Interstate 90.

-Give yourself two exits - you never know when one might be blocked.

-Leave the keys in the ignition and the car pointed towards the exit to leave quickly.

-Immediately assess the area when you arrive and scope out 'safe zones' - cleared areas to run to quickly in the event of a flare up.

-Pay close attention to wind direction, and don't leave your car where the fire is going - especially if it is headed up a hill.

-Volunteers and firefighters can give you a false sense of security as to what is safe behavior in the field. If it doesn't feel right, follow your instinct and not your adrenaline.

-Monitor local scanners to figure out where things are happening. I used the 5-0 Radio Police Scanner to listen to the Kittitas County Public Safety feed the whole time, and it proved invaluable in giving me ideas of places to check out. Twitter and Facebook are useful too, if you know where to look. Once hashtags start trending on Twitter they tend to fill up with spam and junk, and Facebook is often difficult to search effectively.

More info here on keeping a stocked fire kit and safety tips from Pete Demetriou via the National Press Photographers Association.

This is one of my favorite posts about storm preparedness and compassionate coverage by Brian Blanco - it focuses on hurricanes but is widely applicable in many breaking news situations.


John Shea watches the Taylor Bridge wildfire consume the grounds around a friend's ranch Monday, August 13, 2012, near Cle Elum, Wash. Shea heard reports of the fire, knew his friend was at work, and rushed over to his home to rescue livestock.

To see our comprehensive photography coverage of the Taylor Bridge wildfire, please visit the gallery. Also, Seattle Times reporter Craig Welch wrote a really compelling story about the Horse Canyon folks featured in the second photograph.
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Josh O'Connor, a fellow photog, has alerted me to these wonderful links. A primer on... MORE