The smell of smoke. I almost always smell it first. The squelched aroma of burnt garbage. The bobbing county road was draped in a slight film of gray haze, like fog but the air was dry.
A half mile from the scene and closing the smoke’s hues darken slightly. Before my eyes cross the top of the hill I can sense the faint reflection of red and blue strobe lights bouncing off the thick air.
There must be at least a couple hundred flashing bulbs on the fire trucks, ambulances and private vehicles lining the roadway. The kind that are so bright that to look at them directly leaves a residual pulsing image stamped in your brain for several seconds after.
In the throes of a fire the scene seems like ordered chaos. Crews dart back and forth from emergency vehicles carrying all manner of equipment. A few tired looking men in full turn out gear sit on the bumper of a fire engine as their oxygen tanks register depletion and set off with the sound of an old ringing alarm clock.
The sound rattles periodically, muffled slightly by the constant sound of crashing water, roaring flame and revving fire trucks. It lets the firefighters know when their oxygen tanks are low and indicates to me that the first people on the scene must have arrived about 15 minutes ago.
Navigating through puddles of water, hoses and heaving firemen I snap pictures as soon as arrive because flames make for dramatic photography and only dwindle as crews work.
The smell is like smudged charcoal beneath your nose and it will linger in my clothes and car for the rest of the day even through I never cross paths with any plumes of smoke.
Soot and wet ash cling and steal the color of everything they touch- including the stained uniforms and faces of responders who can’t avoid getting emersed in the stuff.
A man, typically wearing a pair of pajamas (sweat pant’s in this case) who’s running around the scene is a good indication of the home owner. A second personality often seen is the one sitting on the back of an ambulance in disbelief… again in whatever clothes they threw on at the last minute.
As the urgency of the situation wanes and the crews gained control over the scene you see a few of the firefighters standing and watching those taking their turn at toiling in the heat. This is the time to grab remarks for the story. As I wait for this moment to come I walk around taking pictures and trying not to get in the way. I walk down the road and inspect all the logos of the attending fire departments to ensure those who came get the earned credit.
The who, what and when already known I look for other basics:
What was the condition of the scene when you first arrived?
Was anyone hurt? How and to what extent?
What’s the damage? Does the family have a place to stay?
What was the point of origin and cause? (Often only half answered until hours later in the day.)
After spending over 45 minutes there I usually leave the scene while the crews continue to mop up the last of the dying flames and start the clean up.