We worked two house fires last shift. The first was in an abandoned house that has been renovated into a homeless meth den in the recent past; the damage was limited to a scorching of some carpet. The second took place this morning around 5:30 am on the west side of town in the well-worn home of an elderly couple.
They both had only one thing in common: no one was home at either fire.
That’s not too surprising in the case of the first, since the actions of an attempted torching of the place necessitate a departure from the scene in order to avoid culpability. In the second fire, we were told that an elderly couple lived in the home and were unaccounted for, thereby prompting rescue/search tactics to be employed in a serious and aggressive manner. Nada. Or, more accurately, nadie. The house was a maze of rooms and things and junk and the various detritus of life; I really was expecting that we’d find either one of the occupants and most likely find them deceased. The toxic environment of a house fire is a rough ride, and when you’re dealing with the elderly, their ability to survive such situations is a shaky proposition at best. Our truck company was returned to service before I’d ever found out if the occupants had been located elsewhere. Like everyone else, I’ll probably find out on the news tonight.
But back to the common ground. We were granted access to two homes, one deplorable, filth and cigarette-butt laden, what I guessed was literally shit smeared on the walls and remnants of maggoty food and discarded beer cans. The other, cluttered and messy, but not nearly as neglected. Like uninvited guests, we make unspoken observations and judgments of the occupants of these smoky dwellings: how people were living by way of their footprints, what was important, how they kept their homes. And, of course, when you hit the meth-den, you wonder just how people can live exist like this. I read a quote somewhere that said that poverty all smells the same: like stale cigarettes and cat piss. This sounds like a crass generalization, but more often than not, it’s true. We had several toothless passerby offering their own list of suspects, and at one point a lady was questioned but insisted she had only been out to buy smokes and was worried if ——- was still in there. I don’t know what the fire marshal will make of the situation, but I know they’re good at what they do, and they’ll figure it out at some point. We worked our way through both fires, nothing exceptional about either one, save for the fact that like ghosts, the occupants were nowhere to be found. Both homes were snapshots of their tenants, framed by smoke and smell.
As for me, I’ll be left to wonder what makes people tick as I wander through their homes, executing the duties I’m assigned by the chiefs. I’ll see what they’ve left behind, what they never intended for anyone else to see, the family pictures and mementos, the trophies and overflowing ashtrays and piles of laundry and cat shit and dishes in the sink. And we’ll all do it day in and day out, keeping the conversations to ourselves, and the stenches that never leave your nostrils. When the bloggers and commentors and Monday-morning haters of government all start yammering on about how their firefighters are nothing but overpaid slobs who have it easy, I’ll wonder about them too. Chances are, when they find themselves in a bad way, they won’t hesitate to call us in to serve them. And we will. Late at night, first thing in the morning, any time of day, they’ll call for us and we’ll answer. And we’ll work just the same, whether they’re living in a crack house on the north side, a McMansion on the south side or a melancholy old breakdown of a house on the west side. The aspect the critics choose to ignore about the fire service is what makes it exceptional: it’s universal. Everyone gets the same treatment and effort. Even if you’re not even home.