October 10th, 2005

Fire and lunch.

So mirell called me up today to drag me out to lunch, and after some procrastinating (I made it out of the house around 3:30) and indecision (Quizno's? Nah, Jimmy John's), we headed off. As we're walking along MLK towards Jimmy John's we approach the little cleaner's next to the barbecue place on MLK (um, BJ's?) that neither of us has ever eaten at, and we notice white smoke leaking out of the roof (of the cleaner's) near the front. There's a cloud of it visible through the trees as we approach, although not much worse than you'd get from a mexican truck exempt from environmental regulations due to NAFTA stopped at the stoplight. But as we get there, it becomes pretty clear: the smoke is coming out of the cleaners.

A guy in the parking lot was already on his cell phone, but I ran down to the firestation (which was about 150 feet away, it's right across the street from Jimmy John's) and thump on the window. I knew it was there because I've seen (and heard, it's loud) it come out a dozen times while eating at Jimmy John's. They already knew, of course, the fire truck already had its flashy lights going inside the building, and as it comes out and I point at the fire (which is kind of superflous since white smoke is drifting across the street by this point). The thing doesn't even get up to full speed before it pulls into the parking lot of the cleaners, which is now smoking a whole lot more. (It was about a 20 second run away, maybe 15 if you sprint).

One guy gets respirator equipment on and plunges into the building immediately (presumably to look for anybody in there), and another gets the hose out and spends the next five minutes connecting it up. Meanwhile, the barbecue employees come out and stand on the sidewalk looking understandably concerned. At this point the transformer on the utility pole just behind the barbecue place starts sparking something impressive -- huge white flashes that leave after-images on the eyes, with sprays of white sparks just like a firework. The transformer doesn't actually explode, but makes rather impressive humming and sizzling noises and a number of bangs. This sets the utility pole on fire after a dozen or so big zaps, but only a small one and it's mostly the wiring insulation burning. A second fire truck pulls up and I point it out to them, but they mostly ignore it. I also suggest that mark not just suspend his laptop but actually shut it down, because, you know, electromagnetic pulse and stuff. I dunno what's actually likely if one of those things goes seriously off bang. The neon "open" sign of the barbecue flickers in time to the sparkly bangs from the transformer, whick spends a good minute or so being loud and flashy before settling down to a low grumble of hums and sizzles (and comparatively subdued flames in an area about the size of a fist). We back up some more to get out of the new fire truck's way.

The smoke gets steadily thicker, and Mark takes some pictures with his cell phone camera, lamenting the fact that he didn't bring a real camera. Presumably he'll post these photos in his blog. Up to this point the smoke was white and gray, but then thick black smoke starts billowing up from the back of the cleaner's (on the far side from where we were, we were on the sidewalk near the barbecue place trying to stay out of the way of the fire guys), rising much faster than the other smoke which means it has a serious updraft behind it, meaning "hot fire out in open air". The firefighters have been going around back behind BJ's for a while to look at the utility pole, but keep heading around the corner because that's where the fire is.

At about this time more fire trucks showed up, then an ambulance, then several of the smaller white "fire and rescue" trucks and more big fire trucks and a couple of police cruisers. Lots of people running around and setting up various stuff, but not actually accomplishing anything visibly useful yet. Mark and I speculate that they might want to avoid spraying an electrical fire with conductive water.

Pretty soon actual flames were visible even from the far side of the building, shooting up several feet above the roof. For a minute or so they got really intense and went up high enough to hit the side of a big tree behind both buildings, but luckily it rained a lot recently and this was a very green tree. The edge of the leaf canopy caught fire three separate times and burned merrily for five to ten seconds before going "ok, that's enough" and dying out on its own. Then the firefighters started serious hosing down (the back of the barbecue place, shooting water straight up into the tree's leaves, etc). General prevenative soaking, looked like. Lots more smoke here, still mostly solid black. Dunno if they got the transformer shut off or if they just went "screw it" and started spraying when the leaves started burning. (When all was said and done, the tree's canopy was noticeably asymmetrical, but didn't actually look permanently harmed.)

Once actual water was applied, the visible flames lasted maybe two more minutes. Kept smoking for quite a while, though. Lots of people showed up at this point. Police tape went up around the parking lot. Police shut down road going by (officer out on foot diverting people at the next intersection, and then changing their minds a few minutes later and backing up one more block). This was mostly to give all the continually arriving emergency vehicles somewhere to park. After the visible flames were subdued (and the smoke was at maybe half its peak), the first news photographer showed up (a blonde woman, possibly from the Daily Texan).

Once it was clear that things were under control and the smoke had died down to more grey than black, Mark and I headed the remaining 100 feet or so to Jimmy John's. (Remember, across the street from the fire station the first truck came from). We watched the rest from the front window: the array of flashy lights assembled along the street was most impressive. By the time we had finished our subs and were walking back, lots of camera crews had showed up (video cameras, even), after the fire was pretty much out and the smoke level was less than when the first fire truck showed up. But they weren't there to cover the fire, they were there to cover the flashy lights. :)

I had the #2, roast beef sub. Jimmy John's has marvelous sandwiches.

This is not the first building that has spontaneously caught fire as Mark passed by on his way somewhere else (although last time he was with Ed, not me). We were thinking "this eating out thing can be quite entertaining, we should do more of it", but are concerned about the impact it might have on Austin's property values if this sort of thing keeps up...

The Austin American Statesbeing has a brief article, but no pictures.

A fairly average day, all things considered. Got Firmware Linux unblocked, and should have a new release out in a day or two. That should be cool. More patch sorting for the Busybox 1.0.2 release (which I'd planned to have the first -rc for last week, but oh well.) Did some computer history research. Stuff.

Rob
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