Fire by the book
I didn't mean to be a fire chaser but I was doing errands by foot on 15th Avenue Northwest, dropping receipts at the Ballard Pool, when a slew of fire engines and Medic Ones wailed past me on Monday afternoon. I walked half a block north to the curve: an opaque curtain of smoke was drawn across the avenue just ahead, so of course I went to investigate.
I grew up next to a volunteer fire department so I won't pretend that it wasn't exciting to arrive at a fire scene with twelve Seattle Fire Department units. In my own defense, the small town fires presented more excitement than danger. We witnessed the muster drills, the waxy Sunday gleam on Engine No. 4, not the damages. We'd sit up in bed when the fire alarm blasted the night and it wasn't until we heard the heavy hum of the engine being backed into the firehouse that we could lay back down to sleep.
On this Monday I sit on the curb of the Shell Station curb at 70th and 15th Northwest to watch and listen as though the fire has come to me: the old-fashioned ring of communications between engines and command, exchanges between people on the sidewalk. A lead group of firefighters wearing oxygen tanks forces the front door of the small house that billows smoke. They toss out drawers and then chairs, which hit the front sidewalk and bounce. I am struck by how slowly and methodically they move around the house. Traffic continues to squeeze past on the southbound side of 15th even as the fire department builds camp, like a circle of pioneer wagons. A news helicopter buzzes and another group enters with red-handled axes and hoses. A woman perched above me keeps muttering, "I sure hope there isn't anybody in there."
There's a generator hum as hoses pump water somewhere inside. The smoke becomes its blackest; nearly obscuring the red neon O-P-E-N sign on a business two doors down. Police have managed to close 15th upstream and downstream; mobile support sets up a canteen and gear base in the four open lanes. Two news crews set up cameras to shoot footage.
Right on schedule the Whitman students begin passing south, taking pictures from their cell phones. A firefighter breaks the upstairs window from the inside and three girls with stuffed animals dangling from their backpacks wave. The firefighter doesn't wave back. A Medic One truck had been pulled close to the front steps; finally the driver closes its back doors and pulls forward. The onlookers stop holding their breath whenever crews emerge: no victims. As the firefighters exit the house, they remove their helmets. Steam rises from their heads and comes out their mouths as they speak.
There's a forsythia bush in full bloom by the front steps; a Honda Odyssey van For Sale in the driveway; a Formica table upside down by the bushes. My side is filled with odd pairings, an old woman in a leopard skin skirt, men so pale it's obvious they don't usually come out by day. Then the Ballard High School students start passing to the north and need to be directed to the west side - they are oblivious. The woman above me lights a cigarette; the ash blows across my scrap paper. Three women with jackets over their saris giggle at a truck struggling to turn onto 70th. The surname of each firefighter dangles from their jacket-back like a little drop seat; the only woman on the scene is named Firestone.
The apparent calm is striking. No one is running; the fire department looks unhurried, confident about what to do. It must be a relief when a fire abides by the rules: no one at home, no special circumstances. Bad days are emergencies that defy the rulebook - arsons, victims trapped, a trench collapse. In this case the fire will soon be contained without injuries; although the damage may seem physical to the owners later. Despite the weight of their gear, the firefighters appear almost light-hearted.
When my daughter was young and had "worries" we liked to read "The Worst Case Scenario Handbook" together: "How to Escape from Quick Sand" and "How to Deal with a Downed Power Line." It made us feel safer; knowing what do. When the neighbors across the street decided to build a new house, they let the Fire Department practice techniques on the teardown. Along with the little boys next door, I was riveted. We learned how to open a door with an axe and create foot supports on a roof. If only all fires would follow the textbook.
Just before 3 p.m. crews begin to fold up hoses. The news crews are long gone; no injuries so their footage won't be needed. A circle of firefighters, investigators and the battalion chief stand in a circle again - the street belongs to them. Most of the onlookers are moving on although the woman above is still watching and smoking. I walk south on 15th Avenue Northwest and marvel at the silence. For five full blocks all four lanes are completely closed, the buses re-routed, the high school drivers sent to the east instead of the west. On all the surface streets in every direction the cars and displaced trucks are mostly still, the residential streets choked with cars, but on 15th Avenue NW between 65th and 70th, all is calm and under control.