Friday, February 9th, was the day that the social group I’ve been a part of for almost five years sort of imploded. But that was the same night that the gas station next to our apartment almost exploded, so I don’t think my brain will dwell much on the former memory.
It was midnight and the last two people were just about to head out when we heard the sirens. Someone remarked, “Weird. I can’t tell which direction they’re going.” Turns out that was because they started up at the fire station across the street and drove all of 100 feet before stopping alongside the gas station.
It was cold out, hovering around 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Our landlord had left a note on the door earlier that evening warning of the 80mph gusts and -30 degree wind chill factor. Inside, we set both sinks to run with their requested “pencil-width” streams to prevent the pipes from freezing.
We crowded out on the deck, watching the fire crews set up. They couldn’t find the fire hydrant that was almost beneath us, because some asshat had parked his car directly in front of it. Only after we got the fireman’s attention were they able to find it, hook up their hose, and snake it around the car. Out in front, they had the street cordoned off, turning back traffic from both directions.
It was far too cold to stay outside, so I placed my video camera on the railing and went back inside. We pulled the sofa out, swiveling it around to face the windows, and watched the show while pointedly disregarding the implications of sitting in front of a plate-glass window while a gas station burned 100 yards away.
At first there wasn’t much to see. From the very beginning, smoke poured out of the building, but we couldn’t see any indication of flame and it was so white in color that we debated whether it might simply be steam from an already-extinguished fire. We talked about how, even so, the convenience store would probably be closed for at least a week or two…
Almost an hour had gone by before we saw a tell-tale orange glow. Firefighters had, by then, broken out the windows and were pouring water into the building. For the rest of the night, until dawn, there were up to four, high-pressure hoses blasting untold thousands of gallons at the fire. It didn’t seem to help one bit.
Unfortunately, the extreme cold sapped my video camera’s batteries in no time. I managed to string an extension cord out the door, but shortly after setting that up, the fire department cut the power. It was only off for about an hour, but by then I’d switched to my still camera. On a tripod, its cable release in my hand, my Canon rattled off some 466 photos.
As the fire grew, licking the rafters of the back deck of an attached apartment, eating through the walls, and finally collapsing the roof, a fair-size group of onlookers passed beneath our window. Another photographer showed up and decided an appropriate place to set up would be on the roof and windshield of someone’s truck. Asshat.
We watched as the entire parking lot turned into a lake, then the entire inbound lane of Egan Highway did the same. We speculated that driving into town on Saturday would be insanely treacherous around that curve. Through it all, the firefighters fought the fire. I wondered whether their heavily-insulated suits kept the cold out as well as the heat.
As hot as the fire must have been, the cold air countered it. Icicles under the gas station awning never melted and the even the trees right next to the building maintained tenacious clumps of snow.
Sometime after 3:30pm, Joe decided it was time to head home. He only lives about a quarter-mile up the road; an easy walk, even in the cold. Of course, he was thwarted by the firemen. They wouldn’t even let people pass by on the opposite sidewalk. Joe came back and continued to watch the show awhile longer from the sofa. Oksana and I went to bed shortly before 4am.
By noon the next day, the fire was still smoldering in the ruins. The weather had warmed up significantly, but it had also begun to snow. Two engines were still blocking the inbound lanes, their lights flashing red and blue. At least one hose was still trained on the building. Icicles covered everything.
By 4pm, the last of the crew was coiling up the hoses. By 5pm, 17 hours after the call came in, the fire department had departed the premises.
On Saturday afternoon, I copied the images I’d taken from my camera to my computer. While skipping through them, I looked for the one shot I remembered might be good. It was.
The local newspaper doesn’t publish on Saturdays, so they hadn’t yet reported on the fire. I was pretty sure I’d seen their staff photographer out there, but I still wondered if perhaps they might like to run one of mine, too…
I searched the contact page on the Juneau Empire website, found what seemed to be an appropriate e-mail address. I didn’t want to just give them my photos if they normally pay for such things, so I was careful in my wording. I attached an appallingly low-resolution jpeg (640×427) to get their attention, then requested they get in touch with me if they wanted to use it.
I was never contacted. I assumed they either didn’t check that e-mail address or they didn’t think enough of my photo. Turns out they ran it without asking. I didn’t find out until I loaded up their website on Sunday morning. There was my photo, front-and-center as the first clickable attention-grabber in their crappy Flash interface.
The article itself led with the staff photographer’s photo, and deservedly so. It didn’t depict the fire, but rather a firefighter covered in ice during the aftermath. It had that human element.
My photo was pushed off to the right, grouped with a half-dozen or so other photographers’ contributions. Ironically, Asshat-on-the-hood captured the exact same moment I did, though his shot was from a wider angle. That disappointed me.
At least until I thought to run down to the newspaper dispenser in front of the post office. In the printed copy, the editor chose to print only three photos. Though mine didn’t make the front page, it was the only one after continued on…
The Juneau Empire was gracious enough to credit me, though I still chafe at not being contacted beforehand. I’m going to quote the e-mail I sent in its entirety. You tell me if you think I was giving them carte blanche with my photo:
Subject: Fisherman’s Bend Fire Photos
Date: Sat, 09 Feb 2008 15:57:20 -0800
Attachments: “tesoro fire – arlo midgett – 09FEB08 (Small).JPG” (37.45 KB)
I was wondering what your policy was for submitting photos to the Juneau Empire. I snapped quite a few at the Tesoro/Fisherman’s Bend fire last night and I think a couple of them are pretty decent. Of course, I saw a lot of other photographers there, probably one from the JE.
Anyway, I’ve attached a low-res version of one to this e-mail. If you’re interested in using it, or would like to see what else I have, please contact me either at this e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by phone (790-xxxx home, 321-xxxx cell).
I mentioned this to a photographer friend, and he suggested I write them a matter-of-fact cover letter and submit a bill for $250. (“Thank you for running my photo, Three Firemen and a Hose, in the February 10th edition of you newspaper! Please make your check payable to ‘A Midgett Productions…'”) He brought up a good point: They’re making money off of my creativity. And who knows? The bill just might flow right through their accounting department without anyone questioning it.
Yeah, but honestly, I probably would have settled for the credit, which they gave me. Besides, all that writing and billing sounds like a lot of work. Still, wouldn’t it have been nice if they’d at least provided a link to this website?
Juneau photographers beware.
Anyway, their loss. Below you can see some of the more interesting photos I took. I selected these more for their ability to illustrate the sequence of events than for their esthetics. Still, some of them are pretty amazing. Consider the following a photo-essay.
This is about what we saw for the first hour or so. Lots of smoke, little else.
The first signs of actual fire.
Hoses above and below.
For the first half of the fire, it looked as though it would never reach our side of the building.
Because of the exposure settings, this probably looks a little worse than it actually was. I was experimenting with exposures lasting anywhere from a half-second to 6 or even 8 seconds long. That’s a lot of time for the reflected light to gather in the smoke. Make no mistake, though, this was a bad fire.
You can see a stream of water on the left, shooting into the fire on the back deck.
A closeup on the back deck. Looks bad.
Pulling back for an establishing shot. If you look close, you can see all four hoses working. Incidentally, this exposure more closely matches what we saw from our picture window.
Similar view, longer exposure.
It looks like the house next door is on fire, but mostly all that red is reflected off white smoke and snow.
Here you can see a wine rack still standing inside the window. The side of the store closest to the pumps was filled with alcohol.
Back a little farther, we can see how high the flames are reaching.
In this photo, you can just make out the silhouette of Asshat-on-the-hood.
He stands out better here.
I didn’t get the impression that it was too dangerous for the firemen to stand with this hose; they just had better things to do at this particular moment.
I suspect they were just trying to saturate the outside wall here.
I’d pay a dollar to know what they’re talking about.
Asshat is blurred by movement here, but I wanted to show how inconsiderate he was to the owner of this truck. Do you think he had rubber feet or ice spikes on his tripod?
It looks like the fireman is moving in reaction to an explosion here. Probably not.
You can just see the fire starting to burn through the wall, left of the windows.
The walls are starting to go, as is roof. Surprisingly, the wine rack is still standing.
The roof must be pretty much gone at this point.
The fire climbing the cable was the closest it ever got to the pumps.
You can still see the icicles hanging from the pumps’ awning.
Adjusting the exposure gives us a better view into the interior. Ceiling support beams have fallen.
Note the upper section of the wall.
Fire is starting to show through the upper wall seam.
And now the upper section has fallen inward.
And finally, one last view, late in the night (or early in the morning), of our vantage point.
The Juneau Empire article mentioned that the Fisherman’s Bend gas station and convenience store was insured. That’s good, however, there was also an apartment underneath. I lost a lot in a fire not so long ago. It’s difficult to put into words how devastating it is. My heart goes out to them.