Last summer, I stood in front of the biggest fire I’ve ever seen in my life and talked about it on live television. And then I ate a handful of mixed nuts meant for farm animals.
It was a hot July evening in Oregon, but a late summer wind stirred the thick heat. I was at KVAL News, the television station I work for. It’s a little building perched up on a steep hill in the south of Eugene. The evening news shows were underway, and I was planning to slip away from the newsroom soon to enjoy the summer night- which in Oregon means sitting on a patio for 3 hours and drinking beer.
Summer is not only beer season in Oregon- it’s also fire season. The hot, dry snap of a Pacific Northwest summer mixed with blustery wind is the perfect cocktail for a stray, fiery spark from machinery; or for a forgotten cigarette butt left in the woods, to erupt into something catastrophic.
So it wasn’t a shock when we heard some chatter on our police and fire radio scanner that there was a fire out in Junction City, about 20 miles away.
Our newsroom has the luxury of an amazing view- one of the positives to being up on one of the highest hills in South Eugene. As I walked into the newsroom, I noticed people craning their necks, looking out windows. A few opened the front door, peering up at the sky. Someone aimed our station tower camera in the direction of Junction City.
A massive plume of smoke pooled into the sky, miles away, curling and billowing in the late day sun. It looked like a huge, fluffy cloud rising up from the earth.
Bounds Hay Company, a huge hay exporting company in Junction City, was on fire– and I was tapped to go.
I zipped up an oversized caution vest that made me look like I was wearing an orange plastic bag, and then tore out of the parking lot. It was a 30 minute drive, but I followed the smoke to my destination- a yawning field of fire, lighting up the charcoal remains of a building in smoldering flames. Up close, it was vomiting thick, black smoke into the sky.
I turned onto the road that ran parallel to the farm and found myself facing a fire truck barricade yards down the road. I spotted a few other cars parked on a field nearby and veered onto a bumpy dirt farm road.
People gawked at the fire from the field I parked in. I stood next to them, gawking through my camera lens and almost knee-deep in dry, itchy grass. I was still relatively far away- aka, the correct, safe distance someone should be away from a massive factory on fire.
Obviously, I needed to get closer.
I noticed a firefighter sitting in his dusty car out on the road. He rolled down his window as I stepped up to the truck.
“How close can I get?” I asked. My camera was in one hand, tripod in the other- purse slung over one shoulder. I looked like a pack mule.
He looked at the fire, considering it. “We’re worried there could be some explosions, so…I’d recommend staying here.”
“Am I allowed to get closer?”
He gave me a look that suggested I wasn’t that bright. “I wouldn’t advise it.”
I did get closer, because his suggested assessment of me was potentially correct. A reporter from another station and I walked further into the field- the flames getting brighter; the shimmering air getting hotter- until we found a fire chief who assured us we weren’t going to be caught in an explosion anytime soon. Whew.
Miraculously, and thankfully, no one was hurt in the fire- but there was more than a million dollars in damage done to the property, with about one-thousand tons of hay burned up to a crisp.
Thankfully, the fire chief understood our reporterly desire to get closer to the fire. He was going to let us follow him…even closer to the fire.
A photographer I work with, Emily, met us before we left with the fire chief. We jumped into our news car and followed the chief down the long strip of road hugging the farm. I remember passing right by the massive wall of flames, feeling the car window get hot under my hand.
We turned a corner and suddenly we were off the road- wheels bumping on the hard dirt and tall grass. As we followed the chief’s big pickup truck, my eyes were wide.
We followed him into a field bordering the fire, jerking the wheel to avoid divots in the dirt that could mean bad news for our news car. The fire reared up on the horizon like a sunset, and the chief pulled his car to a stop about 200 feet away from the wall of flames.
We reached our destination.
I stepped out of the car, grass crunching under my feet. The sky was dark and a cool breeze picked up on the air, but the ambient heat of the fire kept us warm.
I thought I would be terrified standing next to a massive fire that could potentially light up the field I was standing on, but I was weirdly calm. The chief assured us it was safe, and I trusted him.
After hours of action and uncertainty, we were at a lull- this was our camp for now, the place we would go live from for the 11pm news. In the sudden stillness, the fire a dull roar behind me, I suddenly realized something…I was starving.
I hadn’t eaten anything in 12 hours, and for someone who is constantly eating, that is an impressive fasting period.
I asked Emily if she had any snacks. She frowned and thought for a moment, slowly shaking her head- and then, her face brightened.
“I think I have something!” She set down her camera gear and went to the car, rooting around in the backseat as my blood sugar continued to drop. I would’ve literally eaten the grass at that moment if I didn’t think it would’ve made me sick.
She ran back over, a big Ziploc bag of mixed nuts in her hand. At that moment, she looked like an angel sent from heaven.
I grabbed a handful and munched on them happily. Sweet, sweet sustenance. As we set up for our liveshot, chatting about nothing, I asked Emily if she kept the mixed nuts for emergencies.
“Oh,” she said, “I was actually on a story and I met a farmer. He gave them to me. He said he ordered the nuts for his pigs, but ended up not wanting to give the nuts to them. So I got them.”
I regarded the mixed nuts in my hand for a moment, unsure of how I should feel about eating mixed nuts originally meant for pigs. I wanted to be disgusted, but…they were so good, and I was so hungry.
“He said they’re fine for humans,” she added, probably noticing the sudden alarm plastered on my face.
While I appreciated the reassurance, at that point? I honestly didn’t care. Emily and I had tromped around in fields all day under the flickering eye of an ever-looming fire. I was dead tired, sunburned, and smelled like smoke. At that moment, those weird pig mixed nuts were a 5-course meal.
I grabbed another handful from the bag.
This is the first part of my new post series, “Things I Ate on Breaking News”. I’ll look back at some of the most impactful stories I’ve covered, and how I remember them through food.