Lights, chainsaws, and smoke


Red and blue alternating flashes flipped a u-turn, pulled up next to the curb, and backed up 10 feet. The kids across the street backed four cars out of a shared driveway. Next came Engine 2 from the San Luis Obispo Fire Department; then Engine 3; then the big kahuna, mammoth-sized engine with a ladder that extends from its top. Yellow-clad firefighters hopped out as college students stopped on the sidewalk and ran down their driveways.

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Sparks that looked like fireworks without the sound flickered above a green tree. They were coming from the roof.

A chainsaw started up: brrrrimmmm, brimmmm, brimmmmm. Generators whirred and chugged to life. The behemoth’s long white ladder lifted off the truck, slowly spun around, perfectly missing the power lines, and began stretching its neck, each section that poked out was smaller than the last. Firefighters started cutting through the roof. The first cut was two feet long; the second one was one-and-a-half feet. And they kept cutting until they could pull the rectangle of slats and shingles off. Smoke eeked out, billowing into a column visible only because of the five-story tall ladder shining bright beams of gigantic emergency lights into the 9:40 p.m. darkness.


Policemen shut the street down, using their flashlights to turn away cars. Someone put orange cones out in a semi-straight row across the turn lane.

More engines showed up; this time they were Cal Fire trucks. A long flat hose rolled out, firefighters dragged it across the four-lane, usually busy, Foothill Boulevard. Water sprayed from the fire hydrant. They hooked it together, water filled the hose, pfft, engorging the lifeless hose as it snaked its way across the street.


The neighboring houses emptied, as residents watched. Firefighters climbed down from the roof, while others with face masks and oxygen tanks went inside. Water trickled down from a vent charred from the fire.

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A tall boy with a buzz cut and a Cal Poly shirt said, “Since this is my house, should I pose for your pictures?” He said he was eating dinner when he heard a knock at the door. It was a girl from next door. She told him his roof was on fire, and it was then that he noticed what seemed like water trickling from the ceiling. “But we’re all OK,” he said, walked away, and got on his cell phone. He was still in his socks.

A utility truck’s here now. It must have been downed wires that caused the sparks, that lit the fire. At least, that’s what people are saying. The power lines look like they’re draped across the house. Someone just bought that house this summer. Lucky them.


Less than 1,000 Buddhas

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Their white exterior blinds the viewer when the sun hits them just right. They sit along eight spokes of a Dharma wheel which encircle the colorful contrast of Yum Chenmo, The Great Mother of Transcendent Wisdom.

Below the fall color of Montana hills just north of Missoula a monument waits to be finished. The Garden of One Thousand Buddhas, also known as the Ewam Buddha Garden, is  being built under the guidance of Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche, who is believed to be an incarnate Tibetan Buddhist lama.

It is an unexpected site down a dirt road in between ranch homes and hay fields in the Jocko Valley, a new relic of ancient Tibet full of symbolism and dedicated to inner peace.

The monument is still in the process of being completed and lives off of both in kind donations and sponsorships. But eventually 1,000 buddha statues will be finished and encircled by 1,000 miniature stupas in a small northwestern Montana valley.

Two lives

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I wanted to go through my archives and post some of the stuff I’ve worked on in the past…so eventually I’ll catch up to now and get more of my work out there. This was a travel project I worked on last year focusing on Sandpoint, Idaho. It reminded me that things do indeed change and I hope the economy was just at the low point in the up and down cycle for Sandpoint, just like it has been for so many other resort towns.

Sandpoint, Idaho is a city with two lives. One of a resort town, complete with a winery and a downtown beach on the southwestern shores of Lake Pend d’Oreille. The other of a town struggling to survive, complete with empty storefronts and winter streets with no one on them.

Four years ago I came across the town of Sandpoint while passing through on my way to Spokane, Washington. Idaho Highway 200 takes the traveler on a scenic route through downtown. I stopped and ate dinner at a place that now only exists as an empty restaurant.

I went back later that year and participated in a wine shop tasting, the business is no longer there and in its place there is a high-end art studio.

Those visits cemented Sandpoint in my mind as a chic little town in the Idaho Panhandle, surrounded by water and mountains, that I wanted to visit again.

What has replaced that vision is now a town that has been hit hard by economic times, a town with at least three empty storefronts on every block.

Mat Schiel, a bartender at Mick Duff’s brewery in downtown, said he’s seen many storefronts open and close in the two years he’s been in Sandpoint.

“Two people own all of the buildings in downtown and they don’t seem to care if they’re full or not,” he said. “Rent is expensive.”

A by-pass is currently in the works alongside the rail tracks and Sandpoint’s historic train station that could take the Idaho Highway 200 traveler business away from downtown.

But Sandpoint still maintains a part of its destination-town history.

On the weekends you are almost guaranteed to find music somewhere downtown. Stumble into the Pend d’Oreille winery on a given weekend and you could find a barrel tasting and live music.

Stay at the Best Western Edgewater Resort and book a room with a lakefront view. Step out onto the beach for a seven a.m. sunrise or a walk on city beach.

The Panida Theatre is in the process of being restored to its original glory with the help of some persistent town folk, the Pend d’Oreille winery is still kicking after 16 years, and a slew of lakefront condos were installed within walking distance from city beach.