By Kirby Neumann-Rea • Of the News-Register • 

Back, and Forth: Covering first fire in Mac yields insights, surprise

When it comes to new experiences, sometimes the most bewildering part is what one does not do.

For years, I considered a camera part of my daily equipment on the job. But since coming to McMinnville six months ago, and joining this talented group of reporters and photographers, I now need to take a photo only once every couple of weeks.

It’s been a strange adjustment at times, because for better part of the last 40 years of newspaper work, I took a camera everywhere. I photographed numerous accidents, fires and other instances of bad news.

That’s no longer quite the case, and the bewildering part is both missing it and not missing it. I do keep a camera handy, though, and had it at home Sept. 28 when sirens signaled a fire one block from my house.

As many times as I’ve done this kind of thing, it’s probably the first time I ever walked to cover a house fire. Accordingly, I felt a sense of trepidation, knowing I was responding to someone else’s misfortune in my neighborhood.

The Villard Street fire was indeed serious. It heavily damaged a transitional home for people in recovery. Reporter Paul Daquilante reported on the aftermath in our Oct. 5 edition.

The residents were unhurt, care is being provided to them and hopes are high a new home will soon be found for them. So some degree of positive news has come out of what was a frightening, unhappy disruption.

A pair of conversations, unexpected and uplifting, would come from my first experience of covering a fire in McMinnville.

When I arrived, numerous neighbors had gathered and police had just put up yellow caution tape.

Approaching the scene, I was aware it was some time since I had gone to photograph and report on a fire, and I had to remind myself of basic steps — namely, try to find the person in charge, let that person know I’m on the scene and learn what I can.

Ten minutes later, I would find Chief Rich Leipfert. And after he was done conferring with some of his staff, he took a few minutes to fill me in.

In my first few minutes at the scene, I assessed where to go and how to accomplish what I needed.

I tried to stay out of peoples’ way otherwise, and as I did so, I overheard a septuagenarian man tell a boy, presumably his grandson, “I used to volunteer with Lafayette.” That reflected arrival of mutual aid volunteers from throughout the county to assist.

“Did the fire trucks look like that?” the boy asked. The man laughed, saying, “No, and in those days we’d ride on the back and hold onto a rail” — a practice probably abandoned back in the Clinton era.

“What was your uniform like?” he boy asked. The man told him they looked similar, “but they’re a lot better now.”

I was impressed with the younger’s earnest interest, and the teachable moment for a man to talk about his public service. But I needed to learn what I could about this fire today.

Looking across the yellow tape, I spotted a McMinnville police officer. I stepped up to the tape, introduced myself and said I was with the News-Register.
She smiled and surprised me by responding, “Yes, I know you, Kirby.” Behind her mask, I recognized Molly.

For years, Todd Jensen was a printer at my former paper, the Hood River News. And he was a wonderful guy to work with.

We had more to talk about when his daughter, Molly, enrolled at Linfield, as that’s also where I went to college.

I got to know Molly briefly when she was in middle school. But this view across the yellow tape was the first I had had since she graduated from high school more than 10 years ago. And I wasn’t aware she had joined the McMinnville police force.

Molly pointed me to the corner of Vine Street, where I could find the incident command staff. After briefly catching up, and agreeing on the bittersweet nature of making the small-world connection under such circumstances, I headed that direction.

Later, I thought of the elderly man and the boy, and the crowd that had gathered. It occurred to me that the best aspect of a tragic situation was members of the community getting to see their public servants in action, witnessing first-hand at least a portion of the skills needed and dangers faced in a fire response.

How many people get to see what unfolds at the scene of a three-alarm fire? How many get to see volunteers from other towns  — Sheridan,m Carlton, Amity, Dayton and Lafayette — rushing to lend a hand?

It’s a healthy thing. It’s good to know local towns have each others’ backs.

Contact Kirby Neumann-Rea at kirby@newsregister.com or 503-687-1291.

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