August 23, 2013

You never get the smell of smoke out of your skin.

“It’ll be in there for weeks,” NBC News Coordinating Producer Al Henkel said via phone as he drove to Boise after several days covering the Beaver Creek fire in Idaho.

Henkel, who is based in Dallas, has been covering fires for NBC News since at least the mid-’80s. In 2005 NBC sent him to fire school in Colorado so he could earn his “red card,” the credential that allows firefighters to join wildfire crews upon arrival. He occasionally helps out with controlled burns at the LBJ National Grasslands in Texas.

“Some guys play golf,” Henkel said. “This is what I do.”

Henkel joined the Pike Hotshots of Monument, Colo., in Idaho for two days this week and posted pictures from the Beaver Creek blaze on Instagram when he could get cell phone service.

An incident commander had convinced Verizon to install a cell on wheels, or COW truck at a base camp, he said. But he couldn’t get a tool he sometimes uses to stream video to work over the cell service, so he left a tape at his car for an NBC News crewmember (correspondent Miguel Almaguer was reporting on the fire not too far away) to come pick up.

“You have to shoot it in such a way that’s relatively self-explanatory,” Henkel said about the footage he delivers in such ways; he can’t sit with editors explaining the context of shots.

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Henkel flew to Boise this week, then drove to Hailey, Idaho, where the fire’s incident command post was located. Information officers there have to sign off on letting him embed with the firefighters.

That’s not usually a problem, Henkel said, because those officers know NBC News will “make the Forest Service look good. Some people say aren’t you blowing their horn a little too much, and I say probably not. Firemen are hard to paint in a bad light because they go into places to save houses, save property” — something “most of us wouldn’t do.”

Wildlife firefighters work 14-day shifts, during which they can rarely shower and subsist on MREs or “hot buckets” — plastic pails filled with hot food eaten standing up at crew buggies where they also service chainsaws.

Henkel said on his first day, he drove into a mountain with the crew and then walked a couple of miles to where they’d work. “Unfortunately, you’ve got to walk out, too, when you’re done,” Henkel said. They finished work at midnight, made the long walk back to their vehicles, then returned to camps.

Henkel is 55. Among the firefighters, he said, “I was the oldest guy by almost 10 years.”

In his piece for NBC, he wrote “Superintendent Bob Ayotte jokingly told me, ‘You are so old, Moses had you put out the burning bush.'” The firefighters are mostly in their 20s and 30s he said, “and they take fitness very, very seriously. It’s nothing for them in a workout to do 600 pushups.”

I asked Henkel if he could do that many.

“I probably could do 600 in an hour, but it would be difficult for me to raise my arms the next day.” His legs felt “really sore” on Thursday, he said.

Henkel’s the guy in the red hat with the camera. (Courtesy Al Henkel)

He carries a camera, plus a backpack that weighs about 30 pounds with two gallons of water, food, batteries, a firefighter’s radio and other equipment.

NBC has kitted him out with clothing made of Nomex fabric, which protects against burns. It’s heavy and hot. In California, Henkel said, laws about who can cover fires are looser.

One time, he said, he was standing in a field of blazing chaparral that was burning “like oily Kleenex” when a guy from a local TV station pulled up dressed in shorts and a T-shirt.

“I think you are out of your mind, man,” Henkel remembers thinking. “There’s a reason I’m wearing all this hot and heavy crap — because I don’t wanna get burned!”

I asked Henkel if he ever wished he’d chosen a less arduous specialty. “I love it,” he said. “It’s easy to cover a fire from the road, but it’s different when you have to walk out on the damn mountain.”

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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