Thinking of firefighters

A recent conversation with a friend has gotten met to thinking about the firefighters who are battling the flames in California. The past few seasons have been filled with what seems almost like nonstop fires. The first in California have made the headlines so many times that we hardly consider it news when we read that another subdivision has been evacuated and the flames are threatening more and more homes. The power company cuts off electricity in an attempt to avoid sparks that could ignite new fires and even their actions are a bit of “too little too late” with lawsuits from previous fires mounting and the company struggle with bankruptcy. Those who have dedicated their lives to fighting fires have been working long days with insufficient time off for what seems to be years.

Despite all of the destruction, there must be some small victories for firefighters - a home saved, flames diverted from their most destructive path, a backfire that works and slows the advance of the fire. It seems as if they never get one fire fully extinguished before another breaks out and it must be demoralizing to have to drive through entire communities that have gone up in smoke.

I will occasionally sit down with a firefighter or emergency responder after a major event and there is a kind of conversation that involves a lot of reporting on what happened. After the crisis has past, firefighters usually want to talk at least a little bit about what they have witnessed. Our firefighters sign up for the profession because they want to save lives and property. They are motivated by the vision of being there to help their community at a time of need. For many of them the job consists of a few dramatic moments and a lot of boring ones. They have to be on call, so they are at work, in the station, handling light maintenance and cleaning chores, cooking for each other, doing what needs to be done, while they wait for the interruption. It is the interruption - the call that comes telling of a crisis - that motivates the rest of their job.

But for the firefighters battling the California blazes, it must be different. They have been going from crisis to crisis without time to handle the routine chores. The trucks don’t get washed. Supplies don’t get refreshed. Hoses don’t get checked. There isn’t time for all of that. They need to get out and on the fire. When a piece of equipment is broken, it is discarded. Move on to the next crisis is the motto of each day. What do we need to handle the immediate?

I fear that we are wearing out the firefighters.

There is plenty of research into the effects of trauma. Despite what we might think, we humans are remarkably resilient in the face of trauma. We witness terrible things and retain the capacity to continue to be engaged in life. But trauma is cumulative. You can think you are handling things well for situation after situation and then, out of the blue, your emotions are overwhelmed without warning.

Not everyone is in agreement about how to handle the fires. Pacific Gas and Electric has initiated the largest voluntary blackout in the history of California. More than 90,000 people have been ordered to evacuate towns. A state of emergency has been ordered in Los Angeles and Sonoma counties. While the electricity company calls the blackouts a “public safety power shutoff,” the governor has called the outages “unacceptable.” It is has not been officially determined, but there is evidence that the Kincade Fire began as a direct result of a damaged power line.

People want to live in places of extreme beauty and sometimes those places are also the places of extreme weather events. In California, there are some very beautiful places that experience some very high winds. Things break. Services fail. And fires rage through the landscape dried by the winds.

We used to think of wildfires as seasonal events, occurring most frequently during the hottest days of the summer. The California fires tend to occur in the fall and last into the winter these days. Firefighting resources move from one area to another. There are arial tankers being used to fight the California fires that were fighting fires in British Columbia and the Yukon earlier in the summer. The crews of these planes follow the fires and have to work in a continuously “on” mode with little down time for rest and relaxation.

It is hard to determine the complete toll that these fires are having on those who fight them. We get plenty of news stories of the victims of the fires. Those who have lost their homes and pets and other things to the fire often make for dramatic television coverage. We can understand their loss and grief. But we often don’t focus our attention on those who are fighting the fires. They too are members of the communities they serve. In some cases they have lost their own homes as they continue to battle the fires that threaten the homes of others. They don’t get time to dwell with their own losses as they move on to the next point of crisis.

So I have been thinking of the firefighters. I’m wondering if, when they get a break from the fires, a few of them might enjoy a ski vacation in the rockies or a scuba diving trip to some exotic place. I hope that they can find ways to get away from the trauma and allow their minds to process what they have witnessed before they have to go back to the next attack on the wall of wildfire. They are heroes, every one of them, and their work is vital to the communities we enjoy. And sometimes we forget to thank them for their service to our community. We assume that they will be there each time we call without fail. But they are human, just like us and they experience the same emotions we do.

Thanks, firefighters! We need you.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!