A Christmas Eve flash in the sky over northeastern Shasta County has some speculating about reindeer on fire or season's greetings from little green men.

But the celestial light show was probably just a meteorite, said Fall River Mills firefighter Quincy Hatch.

Hatch and other firefighters were driving east on Highway 299, east of McArthur, to check on smoke from three burn piles reportedly on the Big Valley summit. On their way, Chief Chuck Bethel and others spotted a bright light and an object streaking across the sky about 7:40 p.m., Hatch said.

"At first, we thought it might be an airplane that went down," he said.

Hatch, also an amateur astronomer, saw the huge flash that lasted three to five seconds, but said he didn't look in time to spot a streaking object in the sky, gone in just a second or two.

"We had one of the locals up on the ridge drive up in his pickup and ask us if we were searching for the aliens yet," Hatch said with a chuckle.

They weren't the only ones who saw the light.

As his Burney office co-workers ribbed him with alien greetings of "Nanu-nanu" and Twilight Zone theme music, Shasta County Sheriff's deputy Jesse Gunsauls grudgingly admitted that he'd seen a large, "greenish light" coming toward the ground.

It surprised him as he drove on Highway 299, on the east side of Hatchet Mountain, but "it wasn't like it was flying around or anything," Gunsauls said.

"It didn't look like a shooting star," he said, and clarified: "Do I think it was aliens -- no."

Sgt. Anthony Bertain had been driving behind Gunsauls and saw the flash, too. Gunsauls said he guesses it was a meteor, and NASA spokeswoman Dolores Beasley said that conclusion "makes sense."

Still, that didn't stop Gunsauls' colleagues from teasing that he must have witnessed Rudolph's nose malfunctioning.

Gunsauls said he had heard the possible meteorite sparked a spot fire, but Lassen County forestry and fire officials said they had no record of that.

Two California Highway Patrol officers and some other residents also reported seeing the flash, Hatch said.

The Record Searchlight received an anonymous call that some celestial debris had fallen near the Hat Creek Observatory, where scientists are monitoring for signals of extraterrestrial life.

But onsite astronomer Rick Forster said the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program there searches for radio waves from deep space, not visual images close to Earth. Those wouldn't be picked up by its equipment.

Nevertheless, Forster gets similar reports of objects that are more likely airplanes, planets or twinkling stars, not aliens, he said.

"It's neat to imagine that that happened and that they're here already, but we take a little more objective stance to the existence of extraterrestrials," he said.

Forster's not jaded to those callers, though.

"I keep hoping that I will witness firsthand what people are reporting, because they sound fascinating."

Reporter Kimberly Ross can be reached at 225-8339 or at kross@redding.com.