By Peter M. Leschak
Are you a hero? Our culture seems to consider you one. In fire service journals and on websites we’re offered swag for sale—clothing, jewelry, posters, patches—that celebrate our calling and afford us opportunity to advertise it to the public. We like that stuff, and it’s certainly appropriate for us to be proud of our work and to enhance fire service cohesion with emblems. But I believe some of those trinkets are dangerous. You can buy belt buckles, T-shirts, and caps that proclaim you are “America’s Bravest” or that you are a “Dragon Slayer.” Are you?
Here’s what I’ve personally felt on the fireground: stress, joy, fatigue, fear, camaraderie, anxiety, energy, bemusement, confusion, clarity, pain, reverence, remorse, hilarity. Never felt brave. I’ve uttered these words: “I’m tired; I’m stressed; I’m glad; I’m worried; I’m satisfied; I’m confused.” I have never said, nor has it ever occurred to me to say, “I’m brave.” I’ve thought of myself as a fire grunt, an IC, a public servant, a laborer, a teacher, a natural resources professional, a tree planter, a first responder, a union member. I’ve never thought of myself as a hero. I’ve never slain a dragon.
I suggest that any firefighters out there (and I’ve glimpsed a few) who are flaunting themselves as “America’s Bravest” should do us the favor of finding a different T-shirt or finding a different profession. Is this being a spoilsport curmudgeon?
I recently heard a news report from California about the wildfires there last summer and autumn—how the fire season has expanded, fire behavior intensified, and the number of structures lost and people killed has been shocking. We are familiar with this. A CalFire officer stated that the tactics and tools that worked ten years ago “don’t work anymore.” He also reported that one of his best firefighters, after months of stress and loss, suffered a nervous breakdown and how others had been self-medicating with alcohol. We know this is happening.
One factor in the troubles some firefighters are experiencing is their public image as heroes and how much they buy into it themselves: heroes don’t lose houses or entire towns; heroes don’t get their asses kicked by fires they used to catch; heroes don’t collapse to their knees, burst into tears, and say they can’t take it anymore. Normal human beings do.
I’ve seen notable deeds on the fireground, including the protection of human lives, but none were outside the scope of the job description. Even those in the profession can lose sight of that. Several years ago, on a fire in Montana, I witnessed a BLM helitack crew take quick action to save a barn. It involved time-honored tactics expeditiously and safely executed. The management of the local U.S. Forest Service ranger district put them up for a cash award. I was bemused. What, the crew hadn’t been paid that day?
The heroism I have witnessed did not involve physical acts of bravery (that is, customary and expected skill). I recall a fire service leader compelled to discipline his oldest friend, knowing it could ruin the friendship (which it did). I recall a firefighter who spoke truth to power, knowing it could derail his career (which it did). I recall an experienced, highly respected fireground leader who admitted to an embarrassing mistake, took responsibility, and sought forgiveness (which he mostly received). None, to my knowledge, were christened heroes. Maybe they should’ve been. Perhaps we may add to the hero’s column any firefighter who recognizes in this new day and age that they need help—and ask for it.
About the Author
Peter Leschak recently retired as a career wildland firefighter with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry. For the past 25 years he’s been a fire instructor in both the wildland and structure realms for the Minnesota DNR, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Great Lakes Forest Fire Compact, and the Minnesota State College and University System. Peter will continue to work part time as a casual-hire instructor (the state equivalent of a federal AD) with Minnesota DNR. In addition, Peter is the author of 10 nonfiction books, including Ghosts of the Fireground. He’s produced more than 300 magazine and newspaper articles, including pieces in Harper’s, The New York Times, Outdoor Life, Backpacker, and dozens of others. His last essay for the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center “The Quicksand of Complacency” was featured in the Fall 2020 Two More Chains.