As The Skies Turned Gray

Dispatch by Patricio Espinoza
KTVK-TV Phoenix

It's thousands of acres later and counting. On this day in Show Low, Arizona, over 20,000 people, have just received the order to evacuate from this White Mountain's town, and slowly, but surely, a thick layer of mixed brown, gray and black smoke begins to cover the grounds of Show Low H.S., the place where hundreds of fire fighters and journalists have set camp.

As the smoke moves in, Hot Shot fire fighters quietly look over the horizon. Next to them, Mitchell Major, a local doctor, and his son, both say they decided to stay behind in hopes of helping anyone in need. I'm capturing these moments in time with my home video camera. I want to talk to these fire fighters, many of whom are yet to be able to reach the front lines, as the fire is just too dangerous to fight from the ground, but their faces say it all... it was the immeasurable power of nature, and there was nothing we could do about it, but watch in silence.

Watch Patricio Espinoza's
video report, courtesy of KTVK.



Later that afternoon, authorities in charge locked down the Show Low H.S. camp. For the next couple of days, the media and fire fighters will call the grounds home. Up to that point, our separate, yet somehow common worlds, had only collided on that front page, or that top story in our radio or television newscasts, but now, if only in a very minimal way, some of us will get to see how these men and women face their lives. Unless supervised, cameras or interviews are not allowed behind the scenes, and although some images are captured by our home video camera, most will only be brought to life through this story of what I remember.

As the evening approached, and most journalists filed their factual and regular stories, it was time for dinner. Several large white tents cover one side of the grounds, and over dust and gravel, tables for at least 300 people are available. Tonight, over 1,500 meals are expected to be served. The menu? nothing fancy, and a bit rough around the edges, but the best for a working fire fighter. Tonight, tender pork, the most wonderful black beans, fresh bread, plenty of fruit, lots of salads, of course a jalapeno or two, to snap your taste buds, and to cap it all? a wonderful piece of cheese cake; of course plenty of fresh water, iced tea, milk, coffee and orange juice. God knows, I couldn't move afterwards, yet for a fire fighter with only 3 to 4 hours of sleep -on the hard floor of a tent that is- such a meal must have been like a small piece of heaven, that, of course, next to a hot shower and a good night sleep, regardless of where bed time may hit... more about that later.

But first, I can't close this paragraph without telling you about Ivan "Egghead" Cadwell. He was one of many cooks we met that day in camp Show Low who averaged 12-14 hours a day cooking meals for all of us. Egghead, the nick name he says he loves, is 70 years old, and for the last few years since he retired, has been doing this kind of work. Helping feed hundreds of men and women, from camp to camp, and yes, from one hard tragedy to another. I can see the love for his work in his aged, and so wonderfully friendly eyes, face and grandfather like smile. As we shared a minute or two, he tells me he collects maps, and how his latest treasure is one from Ground Zero. As he walks away, I promised to get him one from the Rodeo fire. A promise I kept, as eight days later we left camp.

It's a new day in camp Show Low. I think last night, we went to sleep about midnight or so, right after getting in line with other media fellows to pick up our assigned sleeping bags for the night. We slept near by our Satellite TV truck. I figured, if anything happens, and before we start running, at least we'll get the story on the air first.

It was now 6:30 am. A night person at best, I didn't know what was worse, to sleep an hour more in the open field in my generic blue and state provided sleeping bag, or just get up and face the music. But as I opened my eyes, and wandered out of my "sleeping quarters," I right away noticed fire fighters just getting back from the front lines. I couldn't believe it; these guys had been working all night long while I had the pleasure of a sleeping bag. I now do remember listening in my half sleep, to those tankers drive in and out of camp throughout the night. As I scrambled for my home video camera, and hoping those in front of the lens will understand how such stories should never go untold, I started rolling. My first encounter were two fire fighters, whose names I didn't have time to ask, but truly felt inappropriate, as they, obviously tired, walked by with their bag-packs. They do, however, offer me a friendly smile and wave hello. Their faces, clothing, and hands are stained and covered with obvious marks of the battlefield they had just left behind. As they walked away, they do share with me the only thing in their minds... " A hot shower and at least a few hours of sleep", they say. After 16 hours on the front lines, these fire fighters were on their way to the school's gym where all windows had been closed down and the basketball court turned into a 24 hours around the clock giant sleeping quarter. Little did I know that at the end of that day, I would be sleeping there too.

As I walked across campus, and on my way to the community's shower, an entire micro-world comes into focus; covered by 360 degrees of gray smoky skies dozens of one or two men's tents paint the school fields, gardens, and walkways, while hundreds of men and women wearing yellow fire retardant shirts walk back and forward, as others peacefully swing on the school's play ground while waiting their turn to fight this fire. Young, old, and middle aged faces reflect a hard, dangerous, but honorable way of making a living. Some of these Hot Shot crews come from as far as Puerto Rico and with only one thing in mind... get in there, fight the monster, break it down, and come home alive.

Bryan Dykstra is another one of those fire fighters. We met him on the front lines in the outskirts of Show Low; his wife and family had been evacuated to Eager, yet he was still here... "Trying to save families, trying to save homes...." he told us, as his voice slightly trembled. Perhaps the same feeling that today still seems to drive these men and women, no matter where tomorrow that front line may be.

As I continued to walk through the school grounds, seeing hundreds of fire fighters living out of their bag-packs, last but not least, I met the one firefighter that for me will put everything into perspective. Ricardo, a Mexican migrant worker by day, and a fire fighter by love and need.

Ricardo, and almost 20 others, were part of a Spanish speaking only group of Hot-Shot fire fighters from Washington, each working for a bit over $11.00 an hour. God knows, I couldn't do that, but their story, offered a different, yet compelling way to show that in our country no matter what language you speak or whether you pick lettuce, or are a highly trained executive, when tragedy strikes, we are indeed one nation. Yet, as I broadcast that story later that day, I couldn't help but think of hundreds of immigrants who on a daily basis died crossing the Arizona-Mexico border in hopes of a better life. I know that several of those fire fighters I talked to, one day, also did cross that same border, but today they saved entire communities.

Today, as I remember walking through that camp and by those proud men and women, it is hard and painful to us all to believe that on Sunday, June 30,2002, nearly half a million acres later, and hundreds of homes lost, authorities detained, who they believe responsible for Arizona's largest fire in history, a part-time fire fighter.

Covering the AZ fires... or not !

It's getting ridiculous. In Show Low, AZ authorities are almost escorting you to the bathroom before "it's Ok" to take a picture. I think most of us covering the events understand safety and respect privacy issues, but eight days later it's starting to feel almost like Marshall law over here.

On our way back to Phoenix, we stopped for gas at a station almost 100 miles from Show Low where I ran into a group of fire fighters -Spanish speaking only, and on a regular day, migrant workers in Oregon and Washington- I had interviewed them before, so they waved and invited me to join them AT THE GAS STATION'S PARKING LOT. I had my HOME CAMERA , and started rolling...some "concerned" PIO from Alaska showed up wondering if we had "an escort."

At last night's press conference, it is no longer just media friendly Jim Paxon, but now some bulldog PIO evading media questions.

As of 6/26/02, here are some of the media guidelines:

You may: -Drive to Kmart - Interview people at Kmart or at your motel, WITH PERMISSION - Shoot video from motel or Kmart - Use shower facilities.

You may not: - Venture out into surrounding community without an escort - Take pictures or shoot video outside camp without an escort - Venture anywhere other than dining/shower.

Last but not least, earlier this week some "network guys" met with authorities and worked out a "media tour" So, in yellow school buses they drove us about 50 miles out of town to an open field that had been burned by firefighters to prevent run overs; after a couple of helicopters went by, that was pretty much the end of the VO. No wonder people are getting in trouble, like the crew from CNN trying to get anything else other than the poll video everybody gets. So for now, unless you get the "escort", Kmart will have to do.


These are my personal opinions and do not represent the opinions of my station.

Patricio Espinoza

Patricio Espinoza is a reporter and news anchor for KTVK-TV in Phoenix, Arizona.
His website is

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