Into the Fire


By Ron Donoho
Photos by Dave Good

(Published in the October 2009 issue)

It’s October 2003. Lena’ Lewis is standing atop a San Diego hill doing a live shot for the KUSI Morning News. As the camera rolls, television viewers see a police officer interrupt Lewis mid-sentence.

“He said, ‘Stop talking right now,” says Lewis, her eyes wide as she recalls the moment. “He said, ‘Fire is coming up the hill and you have to leave right now.’ That was enough for me. We packed up and left.”

Lewis has been a reporter and fill-in anchor at independent network KUSI-TV since 2001. She covered the 2003 and 2007 wildfires and, as Cal Fire warns this could be another bad season for blazes, is poised to hit the fire lines again this year.

“Sure, it’s scary to be that close to something so big and powerful,” she says. “When you watch it on TV, it’s one thing-but it’s another to be so close and see the devastation.”

Lewis is proud newscasts can provide information about what’s happening in times of disaster, but she stays behind the security lines and obeys the rules. She’s not out to sensationalize the story.

“My job is to tell people what streets are open and what the situation is,” she says. “But when a police officer says it’s time to move, I move.”

Not a fan of the oversized, protective yellow pants some fire reporters wear, Lewis covers the story in jeans and hiking boots. “I own [the pants], but I find it too hot for those things,” she says. “But for me, a baseball hat is a necessity.”

At the end of a day keeping track of the flames, most reporters have a film of soot covering their face. “If you wipe it away, you get a big smear,” saysLewis. “So on days you’re covering a fire, appearance can’t be your top priority. You can’t be worried about how your hair looks, or if you’re wearing lip gloss.”

The 2003 fires taught Lewis to be prepared-to keep in her car a suitcase packed with essentials like “Fig Newtons, bottled water and toilet paper.”

“It’s a little bit tougher for a woman to go to the bathroom out there on a fire scene than it is for a man,” she says. The lack of privacy is often compounded by news helicopters circling overhead.

Before landing at KUSI, Lewis, a graduate of Cal State Northridge, worked at TV stations in Yuma, El Paso, Dallas and Los Angeles. Her parents were missionaries, so she traveled a lot as a child, living for long stretches in Spain and Costa Rica.

“As young children, my brother and I fearlessly traveled by ourselves across Spain on public transportation,” she says. “We learned to be prepared. And in the TV news business you have to be prepared for anything. Once, when I worked in Dallas, they told me out of the blue to go to Houston for a story. I wound up being there four days.”

That might require extra Fig Newtons and toilet paper.

Glass Slippers

Lena’ Lewis went to Temecula in August for a day of champagne tasting with her mother and boyfriend. It turned out to be a set-up. Mom and former KFMB-TV anchor/reporter Dan Shadwell had conspired to slip an engagement ring into Lewis’ glass of champagne. She heard a clinking noise when she took a sip, then Shadwell got down on one knee.

“We’ve only been dating since January, but I’ve known him as long as I’ve been in San Diego,” says Lewis. “I used to cover the same stories with him and I always told him I kicked his ass in the field.” Looks like Shadwell finally scooped her.