Sunday, February 4, 2007

Part 1 - Wild-Land Firefighters: We save babies

During the time I was making my way through university, I came across a situation that I found to be an amazing pain in the ass; I had to come up with a science-related article for my science magazine class. Quickly getting a hold of some of the class’s previous issues, I thought I would come to better understand what was entailed in receiving a passable mark, however, the only thing that proved to be worth while was coming across an article written by an old co-worker of mine. It was his first-person account of his heroic endeavors while wild-land firefighting and this interested me because at that time I had been working for the exact same contracting company as him for the past three years.

I can’t remember the exact details of his gallant fable but my own embellished summary goes something like: During another blistering afternoon in the wilderness of Alberta, the author and his crew worked a few kilometers away from a behemoth of a combustion that raged unremittingly amid the vast woodlands, all the while destroying its lowly inhabitants. The team frantically constructed a fire-guard by way of falling noble oaks and digging trenches with dimensions comparable to those of World War One. Suddenly, the firefighters’ radios spattered a broken message about the fire catching a second wind and mercilessly throwing its way towards them. Miraculously, their savior, in the form of a great chrome-plated sky beast, descended before them. Once they were all inside the helicopter, it began to lift off… BUT IT STRUGGLED! Slowly gaining altitude, the flames reached towards them, eventually licking the belly of their great beast. After tossing their equipment out the door to make for a lighter load they ascended over the dense tree-line. The author then leaned out of the chopper, ripped open his shirt to expose a tattoo of a flaming cobra and screamed at the fire as if screaming at mother-nature herself, “Come and get me now, you relentless bitch!”

After reading halfway through this I realized that the author was referring to a fire I had worked on; it was the House River Fire that had ended up destroying a fair portion of Alberta in 2002.

Now don’t get me wrong, firefighting wasn't all sleeping and playing cards in the woods. Sure, it could be full of exciting and dangerous moments. At House River, we were evacuated several times a week and we even had to leave our fire camp to be burned over. Firefighting has been one of the most fulfilling things I have done in my life and, to tell you the truth, I would love to get back to that type of work before I get too old and fat.

The problem I had with this article had nothing to do with the fact that the author got away with passing this course by submitting a fluff piece; Hell, I would have jumped on that opportunity if he hadn’t already beat me to it. What bothered me was that his story didn’t include any character flaws, any of the common fuck-ups that usually come hand-in-hand in this kind of situation… basically, he didn’t include any element of irrationality that makes working on a the fire-line a total gong-show—a big beautiful gong-show I have grown to love. The story was far too picturesque and if the end involved him cracking open a Gatorade and throwing it back I would have just mistaken the whole thing as just an elaborate advertisement. I understood that these elements had been sacrificed because it would have undermined any chance of the reader perceiving the author as a hero, but this reasoning quickly reminded me of an element you can’t seem to avoid in the world of firefighting… and that’s showmanship. I’ve got no problem with showmanship, but it was always my understanding that showmanship was purely a method for getting laid; strictly for bars and bedrooms, not for science magazines. Also, I think the ridiculous elements of the task were the most important and interesting aspects despite them tarnishing our image, which in my opinion wasn’t that well polished to begin with.

I’ll start by addressing those of you who are the most important people involved in this line of work: the ladies. So ladies, there will be points in your lives where you’ll be confronted in a night club by a guy who’s wearing a t-shirt that has some ambiguous literary reference relating to the dangers of fire, such as, “Fire is the majesty of the wilderness and we are merely her disciples.” The conversation he initiates will be awkward because he is too preoccupied with finding some opportunity where he can seamlessly explain his line of work to you. However, if he’s from out of town it will be cinch for him because he can simply jump in with, “Hi. I’m from out of town… Yeah, I’m just here to fight the big fire… Oh yeah, it’s coming this way… and fast. [He then looks away, as if distracted, with an expression of grave concern.]”

I’ll admit, I’ve been one of those dudes but I’m a little bitter that I never mastered my skills in conversation because I usually resorted to, “Hi. I’m a firefighter… I save wildlife… Particularly the adorable kind… Does, fawns… You know, shit that you see in Disney movies… Hell, I even save… human babies… Yup, save them from the raging flames caused by human carelessness… Say, I can’t help but notice you’re barely touching your drink. You going to finish it or can I have it?... What? Well, I don’t see the point in paying full price when you’ve already finished half of it… You know what, just forget it… [Turning to whoever was my wing-man] Let’s get out of here, looks like we went to another lesbian bar.” Ok, I never got that bad but the prestige associated with claiming to be a firefighter was always a tool that I never seemed to use properly; kind of like being a carpenter who was born without opposable thumbs.

Now I don’t intend on putting firefighters under bad light because I’ve worked with some truly amazing human-beings— some of whom I remain good friends with today— and I also can’t say firefighting is a job that can be performed just as easily by a well-trained monkey wearing an industrial-strength diaper, but I’ve worked with a fair share of misfits. Now when I say “misfit” I don’t mean it as a James Dean persona rebelling against conformity kind of misfit, I’m talking about a “hey, I once used a grocery bag as a contraceptive” kind of misfit. If the typical person who knew nothing about firefighters were to be exposed to some of these darker personalities the shock could be compared to reading a biography of a long-cherished childhood hero only to find out that hero is really just a fat, sleazy, womanizing drunk who spends his past-time skulking through alleyways in search of unsuspecting stray animals to kick, or jumping out in front of frantic mothers to viciously shake a baby carriage or two. Still, this hero might have done some important things during his lifetime but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a gloating, pompous, hate-mongering Nazi-sympathizer who probably makes methamphetamines in his mother’s basement so he can sell them to kindergartners and senoir citizensOk, I’m being ridiculous, but my point is; most of us were not the people many thought us to be.

While on the job there were many individuals who managed to manifest our doctrine of showmanship into this bizarre social behavior that involved one firefighter proving themself to other firefighters. It was reminiscent of what we all experienced in high school. We all remember those reassurances about the high school social complex ending after graduation… We’ll, it won’t if you end up either going to prison or firefighting for this particular company. Many believed that explaining the most gratuitous aspects about their personal lives to complete strangers, who usually couldn’t give a shit, was the best way to showcase their personality. For some reason I knew that certain people’s favorite position while making sweaty monkey love was “missionary” before I even knew their actual names. Hell, I started expecting this kind of information to be used as conversational icebreakers right after first introducing myself…

“Hey, nice to meet you my name’s Jeff.”
“Definitely missionary… Or on my back… Oh, my name is Carl by the way.”

The best and most important example of our showmanship was that of the hero-shot. This was exactly as it sounds: Obtaining a picture of you doing something cool/dangerous on the job. While the best hero shot would involve you battling the fire with your bare hands, it would be extremely difficult because when things actually got nuts, there was no time to stop everything to take a picture. It took me three years to finally get a good hero-shot I was proud of and here it is...

This was right after I wasted an entire roll of film by holding my camera out at arm's length and snapping picture after picture of me trying my best at being nonchalant. Knowing the effort proved futile, I gave up and started brooding when my friend unexpectedly took a shot of me from the front seat of the helicopter.

I've known some people who've loved their hero-shot so much they've actually framed it and put it on a matel, wall or bedroom dresser. It's a strange thing to consider but there are people who wouldn't be caught dead buying a bar of soap in public because they have a feral reputation to maintain, but they're willing to wait in line at a checkout counter to buy a picture frame (Not for framming a head-shot of some sort of loved one, but for framing a picture of themselves.) Personally I could see making my hero-shot into a T-shirt for myself... but putting it on the mantel? Come on.