By Jack Neworth
At the end of last week’s column, I was describing myself (circa more decades ago than I care to admit) staring in horror at my wonderful U.S. Forest Service garbage truck fully engulfed in fire. Instead of being a hero in detecting a possibly catastrophic forest fire, it turned out I was the fire.
However dangerous, somehow I had to put the truck fire out. First, I grabbed a joint out of the glove box and threw it into the fire. If I died from the truck exploding, I didn’t want my epitaph to include the word “stoner.” I then set off the large fire extinguisher equipped on the truck but the flames swallowed the foam as if to say, “Is that the best you got?!”
In the distance I saw a lone camper. I raced over and immediately “deputized” him to drive to Alandale, the nearest U.S.F.S. fire station. Thoroughly bewildered, he grabbed his keys and sped off. I dashed back to the truck and grabbed a shovel.
Machine-like, I began tossing dirt into the inferno, seemingly to no avail. I didn’t dare waste a second looking at the fire. The wood frame that covered the truck bed was going up like kindling. Much of the roof was burnt open, allowing flames to shoot skyward and embers to fly dangerously close to low-hanging tree branches. I had to do something and fast.
I dropped the shovel and drove this huge inferno on wheels as far from the trees as possible. I got out and returned to shoveling dirt faster and faster, all the while breathing in toxic smoke. I could almost taste it and my throat was raw, but I didn’t slow down as adrenaline was racing through my body. I felt possessed.
In the way of background, the Forest Service was divided into two employee categories: Fire Control, including macho firefighters, and Recreation, which serviced campgrounds, trails and wilderness, considered hippy wimps. Apparently, I was willing to get injured (or killed?) rather than be called a “hippy wimp.” Go figure.
As fast as I was throwing dirt, it still felt futile. Until one moment, perhaps 10 minutes into this process, I heard a sudden slight dampening of the fire. I shoveled faster and with each toss, that dampening got louder. Amazingly, I was gaining ground.
Then I heard a fire engine in the distance. The Alandale crew were guys I knew well. I was determined to put the fire completely out before they arrived or face ridicule.
My throat on fire, my head and back aching, I shoveled faster than ever and could hear the thud of the dirt smothering the flames. I sped up more and when I finally looked up, lo and behold, the fire was out. Kaput. (And, frankly, so was I.)
As the sirens got closer, I heard planes and helicopters in the distance. Meanwhile, I hurried behind the truck and posed like Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke.” I leaned proudly on my shovel to indicate to the arriving Alandale tanker, “Relax, I’ve got this.” Worried I was going to faint, I still stood tall (or as tall as someone 5-foot, 8-1/2-inches could stand) to deflect the barrage of jokes I was undoubtedly going to get.
The Alandale crew unrolled their hoses and began spraying water in mop-up duty but not a negative word was sent my way. Yet. The foreman sensed I was in shock and calmly insisted I lie down in the tanker’s front seat.
My head was spinning as I closed my eyes while planes and helicopters circled above. It was like “Apocalypse Now.” On the tanker’s radio I could hear chatter back and forth with headquarters in Riverside, “Jack Fire under control heading back to base.” Jack Fire?! The SOBs had named the fire after me. That meant I would live in infamy, at least for that fire season.
I was taken to Hemet Valley Hospital for smoke inhalation. Meanwhile, Fire Control investigators found the camper who confessed sheepishly he had put ashes in the trash can but thought they were out. Clearly, they weren’t. When I picked up his garbage, I had no way of knowing there was a problem. That is, until I smelled smoke and assumed the forest was about to be under siege.
I hadn’t thought of the “Jack Fire” for decades, until seeing news of the Cranston Fire, which, thankfully, is under control. As written up in the L.A. Times, the residents and first responders of Idyllwild deserve credit for their preparedness.
I miss the people of Idyllwild. Actually, I miss everything about Idyllwild, except for a certain careless camper who gave me one of the biggest scares of my life. And, of course, material for these past two columns.
Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth and [email protected]