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Reporter's journal

Behind the scenes of a fire story

You won&

t read it in the article about the Friday night garage blaze near Highway 66, and fire investigators won&

t detect a trace of it in charred building remains, but that fire really burned the midnight oil.

For me.

If we had a schedule in the office, you would notice this was my night off. Bob Plain, another staff writer, and I alternate the on the 2 to 11 p.m. Friday night shift. But the combination of Sports Editor Joe Zavala traveling north with the Grizz girls to the basketball state championships and a shift-swap with Bob so he could hang out with visiting friends meant I was the only reporter or sports person in the office Friday night.

No problem, though. It was a two-page sports night and I had a straight-forward story about enrollment at the university to pump out. Yeah, it&

s a 14-hour day, but that&

s overtime and I don&

t mind.

At 7 p.m. I was elbow-deep in enrollment notes, but no more than 45 minutes from tackling the sport section designing.

Thirty minutes into it, the structure fire alarm came across our sometimes-functional police scanner.

It didn&

t take long for us &

the three editors at work in the office and I &

to realize the fire really is a fire. (Sometimes its a guy burning a pile of brush.)

One guy phoned Orville Hector, our photo editor, to get him rolling to the call. I grabbed the point-and-shoot staff camera, a notepad and a pen and headed to the car.

I hit Siskiyou Boulevard just after an Ashland Fire Rescue engine and Ashland police cruiser screamed past. They cleared the path for me to follow them at 45 mph.

This is what my V-6 Ford Mustang was made for.

I could see the flaming garage from the top of Highway 66 but, like the firefighters, I wasn&

t not sure which direction to go. The dispatcher on the scanner had directed the crew up Dead Indian Memorial Road to a one-lane country road that led to the gun club.

But I followed the fire engine.

We drove along the golf course to Maywood Way, where fire trucks are coming and going. Was this the way in or not?

A police officer gave me a foggy answer, but the flashing lights coming down the road convinced me to head back to the route that accesses the gun club.

Once there, a local guy in a mid-size pickup told me the only way in was where I had been minutes before.

In the middle of this, I&

m fielding calls from Orville for directions. I just hoped he could get close enough to the fire to shoot something before the blaze was out. Photos of a burnt-out building in the dark aren&

t compelling.

A reporter from the Mail Tribune called too. Was I going to the fire? Could I send them a short blurb on it? It made sense (this is synergy, later tonight their sports department would e-mail stories to me about the high school ski and snowboard teams), so I told him to check with one of our editors.

But I was still no closer to the fire.

After turning around and rushing back to Maywood Way (and nearly rear-ending a shiny red Buick paused in the middle of Dead Indian to gawk at the flames), I got permission from APD Sgt. Malcus Williams to park the &

145;Stang and hike up the road.

No one could give me a ride, he said.

At this point, though, I knew I had to find a way in.

Back in college, which really wasn&

t so long ago, a then-Daily Tidings reporter came to speak to one my journalism classes. He told us he had hiked miles through fields and brush back in the summer of 2002 to get close to the Grizzly Peak fire after emergency crews closed the roads. That&

s dedication, he told us.

So I ran.

the way, night had fallen and I didn&

t grab one of the three flashlights my dad has equipped my car with.

I got to a three-way split in the road and dodged a minivan speeding down the left prong. I needed the middle prong, but part-way down a reversing ambulance and fire truck reversed me too. So it&

s the right prong, which headed up over the ridge. On top I could see the tips of the flames.

I didn&

t know if the road ended or curved, but it didn&

t take me to the fire. I stumbled along through an unfenced field using the weak glow of my cell phone to light my way.

It turns out the field did have a fence. A barbed-wire fence.

this time, Orville had called again for directions and I could see the firefighters had controlled the blaze. Offering him nothing more than good luck, I hung up to reexamine the fence.

Going over the top was out of the question, but rolling under it would work. I landed in a ditch.

But I was on the right road again, and less than 200 yards from the fire. On the way up, I met Mark Griffiths, who lived at the house and used the garage for workshop. Griffiths was taking stressed drags off a cigarette while recounting the dreadful night to someone on the other end of his cell phone.

I got some amateur shots leading up to the fire, met some of Griffiths&

house guests and got right in by the fire fighters hosing down the flames.

I had made it.

Orville arrived less than five minutes later. Dan Marshall, the fire chief at Jackson County Fire District 5, had given him a ride up the road.

We got the story and some fantastic photos (no 20-foot flames, but who&

s complaining?).

But the rest of the night was just as stressful as the few minutes I spent mucking my way through a field to the fire because, back at the office, that enrollment story remained unfinished on my computer screen. I had committed to writing not one fire story, but two (can&

t just print the same piece in two newspapers on the same morning) and had those sports pages to design.

It was frantic, at least for me. I relied on a lot of help from our staff and the sports department guys at the Trib. But when you pick up the Tidings this weekend, there&

s a healthy balance of local news. The fire story &

a bit of breaking news &

is splashed above a well-researched, numbers-based story about Southern Oregon University and a light-hearted look into an activity at our city middle school.

It&

s now 12:31 a.m. Saturday and I&

m heading out. Those firefighters camping out at the garage tonight to watch for a re-sparked blaze will have a long night. For me, it&

s been a long day.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 x 225 or jsquires@dailytidings.com.