True heroism is clothed in selflessness. When instincts resolutely thrust someone toward the promise of danger, and fear is devoured by concern for whoever is being protected, that is heroism. And when those instincts belong to someone who’s willing to follow them every moment of every day, that is heroism incarnate.
Assailants who use brute force or weapons to perpetrate acts against humanity can be disabled by superior force and weapons – even if not easily, and even if not in all instances. But what if the assailant is a raging inferno dissolving thousands of acres, swallowing homes and lives almost instantly? You can’t negotiate with that assailant. You can’t scare it into backing down or lowering its weapon. You can’t threaten it with incarceration. And you can’t bring a superior fire to overpower it. Your means of defense are … limited, to say the least.
Of course, there are ways to fight fire, yes, with substances (e.g., water, flame retardants) and techniques (e.g., control lines, backburns). But to use these figurative weapons effectively, you need more than equipment; you need the most selfless men and women humanity has to offer. You need heroes.
I hold the honor of knowing one of these heroes: my brother Mike, former member of the Fulton Hotshots (Sequoia National Forest, United States Forest Service). (He’s also the photographer of all the images accompanying this post.) When fighting wildland fires, he was on a fire engine for two years and spent six years on various hand crews – eight unimaginably perilous years! During that time, he even fought fires across the Washington/Canada and Arizona/Mexico borders alongside Canada’s equivalent of hotshots and Mexico’s bomberos. In 2012, his team also flew to New York City to help that city’s fire department in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. And for the past three years, he has been a structural firefighter for the Marines – in whose service he spent four years well before becoming a firefighter, no less.
So, why do I focus on wildland firefighters in this post? I clearly have tremendous respect for all firefighters. However, my only firsthand experience in being protected from fire (thank God) has been with wildland fires. In California, these are frequently occurring disasters. Even as I write, there are nearly 20 wildland fires being fought, as the map below shows. One fire was so close to my home in 2017 that I had my car loaded up with key belongings for a fast evacuation for about two weeks. The fire had actually jumped over a major L.A. freeway to continue burning on the other side! How do you fight a fire with that kind of supernatural athleticism?
During my most recent nearer-than-I-can-handle wildland fire scare, I reflected on how calm everyone is each time there’s a big wildland fire. Even with a horrifying monster clawing its way dangerously near to their homes, they all seem so placid (at least to me anyhow). And I think it’s because we take our safety for granted when the firefighters are out there. We just expect that they’ll sort it out. As though it’s some easy task. As though it’s guaranteed to turn out OK. As though fire is predictable and can be fought in the same way every time, and there’s nothing to worry about.
And when the wildland firefighters succeed, we just go on with our lives. There’s no fanfare, no public declaration of gratitude, no acknowledgement of the sacrifices made for us. We act as though it wasn’t a miraculous accomplishment on their part. As though they didn’t prevent innumerable ruined lives – or lost lives. As though it wasn’t a victory born of staggeringly astonishing courage.
In a sense, that complacency is a compliment, I suppose. The wildland firefighters are so good at what they do that we view them like any other person who’s good at what they do: a skilled carpenter, a prosperous corporate executive and so on. But I wish we did more.
It’s not much, I know, but I’m posting this as an official thank you to all the wildland firefighters for saving our lives and property in California. Thank you for looking out for us with no one but your brethren to protect you against the demon you fight on our behalf. Thank you for being selfless. Thank you for being heroes.