Ol’ smoke eater, news hound suspects grass fire, finds none

My father was part of the volunteer fire department in Portage when I was a child and I’m pretty sure for a time he was the fire chief, but I could be wrong about that.

He also was in charge of fire protection at the lumber mill where he worked. I remember him running out of the house if the fire whistle in the middle of town sounded or if he received a call from the mill that something or other had caught fire. I also recall going to the mill with him one winter day and him using a frontend loader to mix snow into a waste wood pile that had caught fire by spontaneous combustion.

And given that I spent three summers humping up and down the Sierra Nevada and its foothills breathing in smoke and dirt as part of a firefighting hand crew, it is a bit surprising – at least to me – that I did not make firefighting my life’s work.

In all honesty, however, it sort of was my life’s work since as a reporter I spent much time chasing fire engines and ladder trucks and ambulances while covering cops, crime and chaos.

But I haven’t covered a roadside grassfire or a wildland fire in quite some time.

I was sitting on my balcony the other day reading a Stephen King novel – what Mainer hasn’t read at least one of King’s novels? – when I noticed a rice-paper delicate speck floating into my view. It was the size of a dandruff flake, really.

Then I noticed a dozen or so more drifting over the apartment from the west.

My first thought was “ash” and “fire.” OK, my first two thoughts.

I sniffed the air, but did not detect smoke, so I didn’t panic.

But I did briefly think back to the wind-driven Quail Lakes fire in Stockton during June 2008 in which dozens of families were forced to flee from their homes because of a roadside fire that spread into a condominium complex and a neighborhood, destroying homes and other property. It was truly devastating and I wasn’t planning to go through what those families were forced to endure.

I made a quick mental checklist – computer, change of clothing, get the car out of the gated underground garage – should smoke begin to bellow over the apartment from points west.

I took a quick look out the front door and spotted no browning of the air and smelled no smoke and went back to reading the novel.

More rice-paper ash – my guess was that it had to be from a grass fire perhaps along Interstate 5 that bisects Stockton – floated over the apartment and in to my view. And I noticed a slight browning of the air, even though I could not smell smoke.

I heard no sirens so I figured the fire had to be some distance away, especially since I could not smell smoke.

Giving in to the instincts of the ol’ fire-eater and news hound in me, I decided to hop in the CRV and take a look. After all, if I planned to blog about it, I surely needed to find the fire.

Or not.

I drove around the neighborhood to the west of my apartment for 30 minutes or more and never found fire or smoke. Frankly, Stockton has a pretty good fire department and firefighters are quick to jump on roadside fires. They are not interested in reliving the Quail Lakes fire.

Grass fires don’t normally make it into the local paper. This one didn’t either or I would have added a few more details.

Ah, well, nothing but a couple flakes of ash, a slight browning of the sky, and fruitless evening drive in search of a grass fire. It could have been a much more exciting evening.

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