Little fire on the prairie

Posted on October 1, 2012


We chased our first fire engine a few days ago.

This turns out to be one of my responsibilities as managing editor of a small town newspaper in the Canadian Prairies. Chasing fire engines. As hard-hitting journalists out for the latest scoop we’re supposed to make sure we’re first on the scene so that we can get the story in the next issue. An issue, I feel compelled to point out, that comes out once a week and is published three days after we put it to bed, so whatever was going on has already been reported thoroughly in every other paper. Not to mention radio and TV.

Still, when the town siren goes off, which signifies that the emergency vehicles have been called out, we’re supposed to  drive over to the building, wait for the fire truck to leave, then follow it. Unless, of course, the town siren goes off at lunch time.

That just signifies that it’s lunch time.

And no, I don’t know what happens if there’s an emergency during lunch time.

Anyhow, my wife and I were working in the office alone when the alarm went off. Responding like highly-trained cocker spaniels, we jumped into the car and started driving. After going a few blocks we began to realise we had no idea where the fire hall was.

Fortunately, the mayor happened to be walking down the street at that moment, easily identified by his EMS vest, so we stopped and asked him. He told us that the fire trucks had been called for an over-turned car and that we could follow if we wanted, but the truck would probably be called back before reaching the scene.

Our next question, “Where is the fire truck now?” was answered when we saw it cross the road about a block away in the centre of town. If it had been three blocks away it would have been on the edge of town. Four blocks and it would have been driving through a field.

Chasing fire engines out here isn’t the same as I imagine it must be for reporters in, say, Toronto or New York. Everything is either on the highway or on one of the long straight “grid roads,” and traffic is considered heavy if more than three cars pass by in a minute. As a result, chasing a fire engine is little different from taking a drive in the country.

The only difference is that there’s an annoying truck ahead of you with its lights flashing.

We headed out to the highway (and by “highway” I mean a paved road with one lane going south and another lane going north) about 300 yards behind the fire engine. At almost the same moment another car pulled out a short distance ahead of us. This turned out to be our publisher with her kids in the back seat waving at us.

Another difference between chasing fire engines out here as opposed to the city is that no matter how exciting it may seem at the beginning of the chase, 15 minutes of driving down an asphalt road in the middle of the prairies tends to make you start looking around to see if there are any Tim Horton’s.

There aren’t. The closest one is in S_____, half an hour away.

As the mayor had predicted, however, the fire engine slowed down about ten minutes into the “chase,” backed into a side road, and turned around to go back to town, waving at us as they headed back. (A lot of waving goes on out here.)

Ironically, a few days later I stopped for a coffee at the S_______ Tim Horton’s with the intention of typing up the notes from an interview I’d just conducted, when I overheard a couple of teenagers at another table talking about a fire that had broken out near the train station. With a sigh, I picked up my untouched coffee and left to check it out.

The police wouldn’t let anyone get close, not even duly-appointed guardians of journalistic traditions. I took a few photos, but mainly got smoke, so I drove around to the other side and grabbed a couple of shots from underneath a train sitting on the track.

It wasn’t anything dramatic — basically a grass fire caused by sparks emitted while contractors were cutting through the rails — but it still marks the first fire I’ve photographed for a newspaper.

A dedicated journalist will always get a shot of the action — unless an official tells him to step back, at which point he’ll try to sneak a shot from under the train.