The door had been kicked in and the telltale hose was snaking through the front door. Slushy, gray smoke was lazily belching out of the windows, the eaves, the siding; it was oozing from every orifice and, quite frankly, was scaring the living shit out of me. This was not how I’d pictured it in the academy, or on the half-dozen already-burnt-to-the-ground house fires I’d worked in Alaska. This was the dead of night. This was real. This was now. The muffled voices were screaming at me to get my rookie ass into the house. We weren’t going to be first in, but I was more than ready to soil myself at what lie ahead.
My first shift, my very first shift in the station and we catch a working house fire. What were the odds? Better than I’d banked on, I guess. I figured on easing into firehouse life, following my senior firemen around for a while, picking up on tricks of the trade. The only tricks I picked up that day were how to raise the flag and how to clean the toilets. To get toned out of bed in the middle of the night, slide the pole and head to working house fire was not scheduled in my mind. It’s a chaotic stew of emotions, excitement, fear, secret thrill and total terror as you walk up to the truck. The other four guys on Ladder Truck 1 were less than impressed with having their sleep interrupted and I was bouncing off the station walls.
Back to the front porch, pike pole in my hand and bug-eyed with adrenaline soaked panic.
If you want to ratchet up your panic levels, try having your senses stolen. I admire those who have persevered after losing their sight or their hearing or their minds. When asked by kids what it’s like to enter a house that’s on fire, I often tell them “think less ‘Backdraft’ and more along the lines of putting a black garbage bag over your head and making it several hundred degrees in there”.
We made entry and immediately the assault on order was in full swing; garbled voices shouting incoherently, the loud drone of the positive pressure fan from the porch canceling out any audio comprehension. You’re in a strangers home, the unexpected guest, and you don’t know the layout, the reason for multiple full cat litter boxes that occupy the entryway. Less than gently, you’re being shoved by the guy behind you, everyone eager to get a piece of some unknown action. And so, scrambling over random broken appliances and, oddly enough, a motorcycle in the living room, the inky blackness of the home gives way to amber glow of the fire in the back room. The hose jockeys from Engine 2 are toiling away at choking and drowning the flames, less than happy to see Truckies enter their domain, each feeling possessive of the chaos, unwilling to share in the fight.
Fire has a funny way of behaving like mice and cockroaches do: when you see some, it’s indicative of a much larger, and unseen, problem. Fire thrives in hidden areas, in the walls, up in the attics and behind the siding. So as not to lose any more face, I immediately copy my co-workers from the Truck and viciously begin tearing into the walls with my pike pole, not really sure of my technique, but relieved to have a sense of purpose in this un-orchestrated dance of destruction. Apparently, I was swinging the tool as though I was chopping wood, much to the amusement of the boys, who took great pains to mock me, then to correct the actions; lath & plaster demand short choppy motions, not melodramatic swings that were, as a side note, hitting the milk jugs suspended from the ceiling. Later, it was found out that these gallon jugs were filled with gasoline as a tool in some strange arsonistic behavior.
The entire event of extinguishing the fire took place in a short time, a short time that seemed to take forever in my mind. More than a decade later, I’ve returned to that same district, only now I’m the driver of the former Truck 1 (now re-assigned as Truck 2), my fellow open cab-firemen having all promoted as well to positions as captains and fire marshals and rescue specialists. The captain I had then has since retired, and that house, the scene of my first fire, has long since been abandoned. That entire decade plus, though, has taken less time to pass before my eyes than it did to put out my first fire. I was nervous, young, desperate to make my bones with my new crew. No one wants to be labeled a slack-ass from the get-go; to be a smart-ass is one thing, and will be tolerated, but to be a sandbag on a fire is the most detrimental of reputations you can have in this business.
House fires still abound in our district, they still stink in the same ways and there are occasional times where the adrenaline can still be ratcheted up a few notches, such as when we hear that people are trapped inside the dwelling. But now it’s my turn to watch the rookies stumble to get the right tools off the truck, to be amused by watching their eyes get big as dinner plates through their masks, their gear clean and shiny and new. We’ll badger them about their Truck work and, if they’re pulling their weight, we’ll tease them mercilessly in the most juvenile of ways when they stand on the porch, wild-eyed at the thought of the chaos in front of them. If they’re sandbaggers, we often just ignore them around the station, knowing that all the humiliation in the world won’t mend their lazy bones; that’s something they’ll have to face on their own.
It’s the only business that I really know well. It’s immature interpersonal relationships and the messy science of mitigating emergencies. It’s the strange marriage of governmental bureaucracy and moments of crazy risk. People with whom we have nothing in common, calling us to give them a hand, and, standing among the smoke and meth-head’s meager possessions, it feels like home.