It’s been more than thirty years since I took the field as a substitute forest firefighter … but that brief service left me with a deep appreciation for the profession, and for those who embrace it. There remains to this day a place in my heart and my prayers for firefighters, which hasn’t diminished one bit over the decades … in fact, it grew some on ‘9/11’ … and it grew once again with this week’s tragic news from Arizona.
In the summer of 1980, I was working a seasonal job as an archaeologist with the National Forest Service in Sequoia National Forest, in the mountains east of Bakersfield, California. Our team was posted to the Greenhorn District, and we shared accommodations with NFS Engine Company 5-2. There wasn’t much to do in our off-work hours, so Chuck and I – both college students from the University of New Mexico – studied with the crew chief, familiarized ourselves with procedures and equipment, tested, and were eventually ‘red-carded.’ We were sub’s, available to fill-out the crew when they were short-handed, and each of us ended up rolling on a few fires.
In the course of my service, I came to know some ‘hot shots’ and to watch them at work. There was about them a swagger, an attitude that they were rough and tough and scared of nothin’. Some might have called it arrogance … I know that I did, at first. But over the course of my own service – watching them go into a fire on direct-attack, knocking it down and watching them come out – I came to the conclusion that their attitude was merited … even after one unfortunate incident when a hot shot expressed his contempt for ‘engine slugs’ and almost started a fight between our crews.
Like I said, that summer – watching REAL firefighters at work, my brief service with them, and my own close call with wildfire on one occasion – left me with an indelible impression.
In his book, Report from Engine Co. 82, New York firefighter Dennis Smith suggested that there was good reason for the use of fire in images of Hell … as anyone who has been burned could tell you. I remember my training during that summer in California, and learning to prepare the ground around me and deploying my personal, emergency fire shelter in the event that the blaze shifted and trapped us … and I remember hoping that I never found myself in that kind of situation. Those who do find themselves in such a situation, on more than one occasion, and keep coming back? Let’s face it … it’s natural for people to rush out of a burning building - or a collapsing World Trade Center - in a mindless panic … but then there are those who mindfully, purposefully rush IN.
May God bless them and keep them, comfort their families and their friends, protect them and uplift them in their life, and welcome them in their passing. Amen