Trapped by Wildfire

Author: Rebecca Gerben '97

When I arrived at the TV station for work, the newsroom was abuzz with activity. “You need to change into hiking clothes,” my assignment editor told me. “The wildfire in the mountains is threatening nearby homes.”

Autumn is peak time for forest fires in the Southeast. For several days in October 2000, I had checked on the various fires in the Knoxville, Tennessee, area and written short updates for the newscasts. I craved the excitement of a breaking story. I quickly changed my clothes and met up with Paul, the photographer I would be working with that night.

Paul and I drove to the foot of one of the mountains where the forestry department and many local volunteer fire departments were staging operations.

“Ah, you two are back,” greeted our contact. “What do you plan on doing tonight?”

“We’re updating the fires, plan to go live from one of the nearby homes at 11,” I replied. “Any chance we can get some footage of the firefighters actually working on the front lines?” Paul and I finally convinced our contact that this would make an exciting story for our viewers. We called our news desk and told them we’d be back with a great lead story for the 11 p.m. newscast then loaded our equipment into a forestry department vehicle.

The trip up the mountain was perilous. It was pitch black — the smoke filling the air blocked the sun — and several times our Jeep would lean over steep precipices. In my life, I had never been so scared. Finally, we got to the top.

As the firefighters worked to surround the flames and keep them from spreading, Paul and I also set to work. We interviewed the firefighters while they worked and soon found ourselves with more than enough video to fill a four-minute slot in a newscast. We crafted a line I could say as I walked out from the behind the burning trees, then set to work on making the scene look as we pictured in our minds. As I wrapped up my final take, I heard the radios of the firefighters start crackling, softly at first, then louder. The men began moving quickly.

“Hurry up! We need to move. Now!” our chaperone called out to us.

The wind had shifted. The fire was now coming straight at us. The crews were trying to come up with a way to contain it, but their chances appeared slim. We all scurried up to a higher point and watched as the flames approached. I was scared. I offered to help — could I dig a little bit? I was sure I could handle the work, if only someone would let me try.

Paul and I soon realized we were not going to make our deadline. At this point, we could not even set up a live shot for the 11 o’clock show since we had no way of getting down the mountain. Paul attempted to call the newsroom, but cell service was nonexistent up here. We hoped the forestry department officials would relay a message that we were trapped but safe.

After some time, the front-line crews were forced to surrender to nature’s fiery attack. In defeat, we all walked just ahead of the fire, down the dark smoke-filled path to where our vehicles were waiting. We had to create a new trail for the trip down. All of us followed caravan style as the first vehicle’s driver tried out any paths he could see — or make. The forestry department sent a steamroller up from the foot of the mountain to clear a path for us to drive down. After many wrong turns and backtracking, we could tell we were nearing the bottom of the mountain. Unfortunately, this happened at the same time we found out the steamroller creating a path for us had died and needed to be repaired. Paul and I got out of the Jeep, grabbed our gear, and walked down the rest of the mountain — by the beam of a miner’s light on one of the helmets — with a few of the men who were with us that night.

At the foot of the mountain, Paul and I both turned and faced the fire through the smoke-filled air. We were thrilled to be out of there — even if we were too sleepy to talk about it.

Back at the station, I quickly wrote a script and voiced it with my smoky, raspy voice. Paul edited the piece, then we sat and watched as it ran just moments later on the early morning newscast. The firefighters later told us we deserved honorary titles for our bravery. The Tennessee Department of Forestry no longer allows news crews at the front lines.

Rebecca Gerben is working on an MBA at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.