In my first months as a firefighter it was all pole. I couldn’t imagine taking the stairs like most of the old-timers. For me the pole stood for everything I admired about the fire department—speed, daring, an ageless tradition offered to only a select few. After dark I would lie in my bunk, fully dressed and vibrating with energy, waiting wide-eyed for a call to come in. During my first months in the firehouse, I refused to let myself sleep, fearful that I’d somehow miss the cascading bells and harsh fluorescent lights that erupt when an alarm comes in. When the bells went off, I’d go flying out of my bunk and hit the pole running, spin down to the ground floor, sprint to the rig, and wait. Within thirty seconds—it seemed like an eternity—the others would arrive at the rig, snapping their suspenders into place, kicking sleepy kinks out of their knees. The officer would key the mike to tell dispatch that we were leaving, then flick a match to his cigarette and settle into his seat.
We’d race through darkened streets, the officer’s tobacco smoke curling back to where I sat fumbling with my heavy coat and gloves. Usually we’d leave the sirens turned off, and I’d watch our progress in the blinking lights playing on the shuttered shop windows and the huddled bodies of men sleeping in doorways. There was no good reason to wake them up.
It might seem odd at first that someone who went from earnest progressive day schools on the edge of Berkeley, California, to an Ivy school like Brown would end up as a firefighter in Oakland. But it’s really not that much of a stretch. The only things that interested me as a kid were books about shipwrecks, polar conquests, Himalayan climbing tragedies, and deep-sea-diving near misses. By the time I was nine, I had read everything Jacques Cousteau had ever written. He was my hero, not because he was a great scientist but because he swam with sharks. I had a picture on my bedroom wall of Cousteau with a knife strapped to each leg. I considered Sir Edmund Hillary a personal friend, and I could quote statistics about survival rates of members of the Donner party. I was proud that I had memorized the names and exact heights of all fourteen of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks; in conversation I tried to slip in casual references to the proper place to locate an advanced base camp when climbing K2 from the southern approach. I had weighed the ethics of starvation-inspired cannibalism and made my decisions ahead of time in case a crisis ever arose. I never went anywhere without a book of matches in my pocket, just in case I had to make an emergency bivouac. I was, in short, an insufferable disaster-geek bookworm.
Eventually, of course, books weren’t enough. One glorious afternoon I won $500 for being the tenth caller and knowing the words to “Coward of the County,” Kenny Rogers’s unsettling ode to gang rape, and I spent it all on scuba-diving gear. I forced my parents to drive to a beach three hours south of Oakland and sit in the sand watching as I got certified as a pint-size search-and-recovery diver. Once, after I’d dragged myself ashore through a pounding surf, a woman walking her dog cornered me and pressed her finger to my wet-suited chest. “Is that your mother over there?” she demanded, looking past me to where my mom was sitting at the far end of the beach, quietly staring out to sea. I told her it was. “Well, you should just know she was crying when you went underwater. I hope you’re happy with yourself.” I couldn’t help it: I was happy with myself—exhilarated, actually. And when my mom saw me standing on firm ground, she ran over to me, clear-eyed and happy, too, full of questions, wanting to know if I’d loved being underwater as much as I had always dreamed that I would.
When I was a thirteen-year-old, it was rock climbing and snow camping. It was, “Dad, I think I need some crampons and an ice ax” and “Why can’t I hitchhike to Yosemite?” One day when I was fifteen, my parents finally gave in and dropped me off in a motel parking lot in Grants Pass, Oregon, where a bunch of poorly washed river rats gathered me into a van and spent the summer teaching me how to be a white-water guide. Looking out the back window, I could see my mom leaning against the car, biting her knuckle. My dad stood next to her, hugging her around the shoulders; from their expressions you would have thought they were watching their only child being marched off to the electric chair. But weeks later, when I arrived back home bug-bitten, wind-chapped, blistered, and ecstatic, the only thing my mom wanted to know was when could she come on a trip with me.
Maybe there was something missing in my sheltered world that made me curious about the edges of safety. But it wasn’t necessarily the danger I craved so much as it was the thought of the rescue; even as a very young child, I would rig up complicated webs of string for my plastic action figures to rappel from. Since war toys were out of the question in a family that went to antinuclear demonstrations for Sunday outings, I didn’t shoot my toy men; I just buried them in rubble so that I could dig them to safety. As I grew into my teens the only thing that changed was that I began to pluck my rescue fantasies from the headlines of the day. When Baby Jessica fell into the well, I wanted to be the guy dangling on a rope to pull her out. When the marine barracks were bombed in Beirut, I wanted to be the one pawing through the debris, the one to find the last survivor trapped but alive in some tiny pocket of air.
If my life’s intent had been keeping my mother awake at night, fire fighting should have been an obvious choice. Yet on the day when, home after Brown, I saw a fire-department job announcement postered to the back of a bus stop, I dismissed it without a serious thought. Since college I’d been working a series of odd and isolating jobs: laying blasting wire on a Nevada mine site, watching elephant seals mate on an island in the Pacific, searching for peregrine falcons on cliff ledges in a national park. My vague plan was to apply to graduate school, get a master’s in forestry, and eventually start a career with the U.S. Park Service or the state department of fish and game.
“But you really don’t like plants that much, do you?” my mom asked when I was at home between jobs for a few days of hot showers and fresh food.
“No,” I answered. We were sitting at the table, and I was watching her make up the massive grocery list she always prepared whenever I came home for a weekend. I’ve always liked the way she does that; she makes orderly headings on a legal pad for each day of the week, and her scissors fly over the coupon books. It’s more of a battle plan than a shopping list.
I could see that she was bursting with advice, that it was physically painful for her to restrain herself from telling me everything she was thinking. Instead she laughed, as if a crazy idea had just occurred to her. “Did you see the announcement for the fire department up on College Avenue? Now that might be fun.”
“I guess. Whatever.” It always annoys me when my mom is right. “What do you want me to do? Apply for a job I saw on a bus stop?”
Historically, fire departments have been filled by the children of firefighters and by tradesmen looking for more excitement and a steadier paycheck. Knowledge of how buildings come together is very valuable when they start to come apart. A firefighter is a contractor’s evil twin brother, always tearing down, ripping up, making things ugly. Our class at the training academy had a plumber, a drywaller, a mechanic, and a carpenter. Even those who were not specifically from the trades tended to be skilled workers, people who would die with a hammer in their hand before they called a contractor to work on their own homes.
The fire department also attracts plenty of former mil-itary men. For them, fire fighting has a comfortable paramilitary structure with a heroic common mission, an identifiable chain of command, and a familiar tradition of self-sacrifice. After the firefighters’ kids, the tradesmen, the military folks, the former firefighters, and those who had come from other civil-service jobs like customs or the probation department, there were only a few complete outsiders left. “What did you do before you got hired?” was always the first question following introductions. I tended to choose the most macho of my recent short-term jobs. “I worked at a mine site,” I’d say, never mentioning my stint driving the muffin-delivery truck or the months I’d spent in Utah monitoring peregrine falcons’ mating behavior. Mostly I just stayed quiet, tried to downplay my existence. I figured if I could just make it through the academy without being called out as a fraud, I’d end up a firefighter like the rest of them.
“Confirming stills. Confirming stills.” The voice of the female dispatcher crackles over the radio, telling us that it’s likely to be a real fire this time, not just one of our many false alarms. If more than one person calls it in, the flames are apt to be big and showy. They call it a “still” because when the information comes over the firehouse loudspeaker, conversations die in midair, the clink of coffee cups goes silent, and every fireman holds his breath, hoping that the address is in his district and he’ll get to go fight a fire. That’s the only time a fireman is ever still. A “confirming still” means that the fire is big enough to have attracted attention from several people, all of whom called in to 911 simultaneously.
With the confirmation the officer stubs out the cigarette on the side of his boot and rolls down the window, sniffing for smoke on the quiet summer air. He flips on the siren now, and I hear it echoed by other distant fire engines triangulating their way toward us. “I’m not smelling it yet. You smell anything?” he asks.
“Nope,” says Jack Alvarez, the firefighter sitting beside me. “Probably ain’t shit.” He’d been sleeping, bent forward in his seat, his head resting in the cup of his two hands. I didn’t see him put the plug of tobacco into his lower lip. Maybe he goes to bed with it already in place. He rouses himself and slips fluidly into his turnout coat, buckling it over his thick cotton sweatshirt, the one with the logo of a grinning clown holding a fireman’s ax. He crosses himself, then kisses his wedding ring, and I make a mental note to develop a ritual for myself, some sort of secular facsimile of prayer that I can use before I go running into a burning building.
“Aw, hell. We’ll see it when we get there.” The officer rolls up his window and shakes a fresh cigarette out of the package. Alvarez clips the last buckle on his air bottle and then settles his head back down into his hands and closes his eyes.
We turn at the last corner, and we’re right on top of it. The building on fire is a classic “taxpayer”-type structure, meaning it has apartments on the upper floors and shops at street level. Fire runs the length of the ground floor, shooting out of plate-glass windows shattered by the heat. Alvarez claps his gloved hands and howls like a kid on a roller coaster. Engine Fifteen is already on the scene, and they’ve hooked a hydrant and laid big-line supply hose clear across the middle of the intersection. What few cars are out at midnight on a Tuesday are driving right over the hose as if they can’t see our flashing lights. It’s not the first fire I’ve been to in my few weeks on the job, but I can tell that it’s going to be the best one yet.
Truck Four pulls up at the same time we do, slaloming into position nose to nose with our engine. The guys are off the rig before it comes to a stop, and they go to work in a blur. It’s hard not to watch, not to be so impressed by the coordinated aggression of the scene that I forget to do my own job.
The truckies start working on the building’s front door, a big roll-up made of corrugated metal. The first guy to the door reaches high above his head and buries a whirring circular saw in the metal, throwing sparks in every direction. He draws the saw down to the ground, then starts again from the top. When he finishes, another fireman gives the door a backward mule kick, and a large triangular cutout falls away into the smoky darkness, opening up a new hole to enter through. Ladders slam against the side of the building , and men run up the rungs and disappear over the lip of the roof parapet.
The first-in crew has an attack line in place, charged with water and ready to go, and they move inside as soon as the door is cut open. They’re going inside to find the seat of the fire, the root of the flames. Spraying water through the window won’t do anything but keep the fire from spreading to the next building over. To actually put something out and keep a building from burning to the ground, you have to go inside.
There’s flame from end to end, almost a solid city block of fire, and I don’t even know where to start. It doesn’t seem possible that we can get a handle on this thing before it burns to the ground.
My captain is standing by the side of the rig. His turnout coat is halfway unbuttoned, his boots are unzipped, and he’s smoking. Smoking and talking calmly into the radio. He sees me standing in front of him and holds the mike away from his mouth for a second.
“What are you waiting for?” he asks. “Go fight some fire.”
“Hell, I don’t know. Anywhere probably. Pick a place.” He points at the hose bed on the back of the engine, then makes a little snaking motion with his hand and points to another open doorway down the block that’s blowing smoke. I grab a hose line and make for the door, stretching the heavy canvas line over the spaghetti of other hoses in the street. I can’t believe he’s sending me off alone, but there’s fire everywhere, and the second-alarm engines won’t be here for another five minutes at least. Long enough to lose the building if we don’t do something.
“Help me! Help! Hold my baby!” A woman runs toward me with a tiny clump of blankets in her hand. Her eyebrows are singed and ashy. She’s barefoot, and her T-shirt is on backward; she’s naked from the waist down. She thrusts the baby toward me, but my filthy hands are filled with the hose and my ax. I’m torn. There are men inside taking a beating as they wait for me to hit the fire from the other end. I look at the baby’s face and see it’s covered with something black and tacky, maybe tar from the roof. The kid is screaming loud enough to momentarily drown out the noise from the sirens and the chain saws working on the roof. At least it’s breathing, I think. The mother scans my eyes frantically, as if she senses I can’t help her. She wheels and starts to run off, but I drop my stuff and grab her shoulder. She gives me the baby, and we run together to the corner, where an ambulance is on standby. We’re both running in a crouch, as if an imaginary helicopter is spinning its rotors inches overhead. I dump the tiny baby onto the center of the gurney, yell “You got it!” to the medics, and run back toward the fire without saying a word to the mother.
Smoke fills the air now, banking down almost to ground level. Streetlamps make lonely little islands of light in the gloom. It’s midnight, but there are kids everywhere—kids on bikes, kids running back and forth along the sidewalk, kids flashing wide grins, apoplectic with delight to be witnessing such a miracle of destruction. They drift in and out of the smoke, just visible at the edges of my vision, their laughter and catcalls rebounding in the night.
“Watcha doin’?” one kid asks as I stumble forward, my feet tangling in the slack hose.
“I’m working!” I shout, louder than I need to.
“You want some help?”
“I got it.”
“I’m gonna be a fireman when I finish school. You guys get paid good, huh?”
“It’s all right. I can’t talk right now.”
“Do you see a lot of dead people? I saw a dead body once. It had maggots and shit all up in its eyes.” The kid jumps back onto his bike, loops a circle around me, does a little half jump over the charged hose line, and is gone.
My doorway isn’t just smoky anymore. It’s spewing flames now. There are other doorways on the row that aren’t burning, but what would be the point of going into any of those? The awning above has burned through, and strips of melting plastic fall to the ground. The metal security door has been nearly ripped from its hinges, probably by our forcible-entry team, and the inner door stands open, flaming, waiting for me to go inside.
I lay the nozzle on the sidewalk and kneel in the broken glass to clamp my air mask over my face. The hose line is charged with high-pressure water, but I’ve got the nozzle turned off. The nozzle has a black plastic tip that is cracked and melted from previous fires. The handle is a pistol grip, and the chipped brass on/off lever is polished to perfection. Everything to this point has been done by rote, the same steps that I was taught in the academy drill tower: coat buckled, straps cinched, air bottle charged. I take my first breath of dry bottled air and look up at the flaming door. The fire is never going to go out unless somebody gets down on his belly and crawls under the heat to find the exact kernel of its origin. I should be exhilarated that that somebody is me. The heat radiating out of the doorway puckers the skin of my forehead in the thin, unprotected strip between the top of the mask and the brim of my helmet.
I reach for the nozzle but my hand comes up empty. I look around me in a panic; there’s no greater sin on the fire ground than to be without a tool. It was right there a second ago! I stand up quickly to look around, but in my confusion I trip on my own feet and all of a sudden I’m on my back in the gutter. The belts and straps of my gear are tangled around me, and the heavy air bottle on my back leaves me flailing on the ground like an overturned turtle. The wind is knocked out of me, but my mind is racing.
“Get up, kid.” Alvarez is standing over me with a smile, my nozzle held tightly in one hand while he pulls his mask over his face with the other. I’m not confused anymore.
Alvarez had snuck up from behind so he could steal the nozzle out from under me. It’s part of the strange mind-set of firemen that they fight over the nozzle, sometimes even bowl each other over in the street in their zeal to be the first one through the door. Whoever gets his ass kicked hardest by the fire is the best firefighter. The man in front gets to make all the decisions, take the bigger risks, eat the blackest smoke. The guy on the nozzle is always the first to fall through a hole, the first to get burned, and, of course, the first to take credit for stopping the flames. I’m pissed at being beaten out of a job that I barely wanted to do in the first place. But I can’t really blame Alvarez. He saw an opportunity and took it, like a boxer going in for the knockout when his opponent drops his hands. This is his job, and this is how he’s always done it. Alvarez sticks out his hand and helps me to my feet.
“See you inside, kid.”
My “partner”—a loose term for someone who just gleefully tricked me in order to steal my glory—extinguishes the doorframe and looks back to where I’m trying again to put on my mask. I can see him smiling through his own face piece. Come on! he motions with his hands before he disappears down the darkened hallway.
And then it’s just the smoke again. It’s too thick to see anything other than the smoldering doorframe directly ahead. But even with a crusty veteran leading the way, there’s something in me that balks at going inside. There’s no reason I should be going down that hall after him except that he expects me to. There’s no rational explanation for why I’m about to voluntarily throw myself into the great flaming unknown, a place my every instinct tells me I should be fleeing.
The hose trails out in front of me, dragging forward slowly but constantly. Alvarez ran into the building with no more consideration than if he were getting on an elevator for the trip up to the office. I’m not there yet. I’m not sure I’ll ever be.
Fighting a fire is a profession that can’t be modernized. As long as there has been fire, there has been fire out of control. Fire is simple, an acute chemical reaction; it looks careless, but it makes sense. What we do today to stop a fire is the same thing that has always been done, because fire itself will never change. Despite the tools—the Halligan bars and the chain saws, the foam nozzles and thermal-imaging cameras—we have three basic techniques available to us. Fire can be cooled, smothered, or starved; there are no other options. And of these three, only one is at all practical. Smothering a fire would require that all the oxygen in the air surrounding us be removed, which is clearly impossible. Fortunately, atmospheric oxygen doesn’t burn readily, or else we’d be at risk from every spark off a dragging chain and there would be an explosion with every flick of a match. Oxygen nourishes a fire, but it can’t act alone. It must have fuel. Wood. Plastic. Clothing. Even steel, if the temperature is high enough. When a house burns, we can’t remove the fuel, can’t lift the building and move it away from the flames. So all that is left to us is cooling. We spray water on a fire so that the energy of the inferno will be consumed by the work of evaporation. The fire exhausts itself transforming our water into steam. Simultaneously, when firefighters open a hole in a roof, the superheated gases are lifted up, dissipated into the atmosphere, where there is nothing to damage. Somebody once asked me why our helmets look the way they do, with the wide brim extending backward. It’s because of the cooling. The water that is not immediately evaporated is boiled instead, and it falls back down on the firefighters. We use the helmet as a shield to protect the thin skin at the back of our necks.
Not much about our job is different from what it was in 1869, when Oakland launched its first professional fire companies. The gear is a little fancier, but there’s still no tool that will fight a fire for you. There’s no substitute for lying on the floor of a burning building and taking a beating, one inch at a time, until the fire is close enough to hit with your hose stream. In fact, the only significant change has been the efficiency of the water supply, a welcome move from bucket brigades to steel mains and high-pressure pumpers.
And still, when you don’t know anything, when you haven’t been to enough fires to put any faith in your own suspect talent, there’s no choice but to give the moment over to trust. You trust that the man already inside is steadier and more skilled. You trust that whoever built the building did a solid job, that they hammered all the nails in up to their hilts, used sturdy lumber, and didn’t cut any corners. You trust that your equipment is good and that all the guys around you will do their jobs well. You trust in the fact that firemen have always run into fires and that, far more often than not, they come out unscathed. And you trust finally in luck and in chance and in trust itself—you repeat with unexamined certainty the same thought that every single firefighter around you is having. You tell yourself that here, today, on this fire, in this place, it will not be your turn to fall. I put my hand down on the hose and follow Alvarez inside.
Zac Unger lives in Berkeley, California.
Adapted from Working Fire, © Zac Unger, 2004 by arrangement with the Penguin Press, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.