Heroes and Dragon Slayers

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.

10 thoughts on “Heroes and Dragon Slayers

  1. After reading Hellroaring by Pete and working in areas South of his AOR during my college years at 7.37/hr to 8.36 and hour Fed rate in the 1990s

    I NEVER once considered myself a HERO. That was reserved for others who gave the ultimate sacrifice

    I was merely fulfilling an obligation I had signed for to accomplish career goals which changed mid career to support aviation and EM operations

    No heroism here…..never even considered it

  2. I tend to agree. Some may earn the title hero, perhaps by saving a life at great peril to (or cost of) their own, for example, but mostly we do our job, which we do because we enjoy it. At the same time, we must graciously accept that to the public, they see firefighters as heroic. Graciously say thanks, and move on. I am proud of my profession, happy to wear my agency shirt in public, but would never assign myself the title of hero, nor claim it if offered. But when the public is grateful firefighters saved their community, I will graciously accept their home-cooked food, despite being already over-fed on the incident. They need to express gratitude, so we need to politely receive it, even when unwanted. But it should never be solicited, claimed, or flaunted. I’m not a hero. I’m a guy doing a job I enjoy, some times to the benefit of others.

  3. Thought provoking article. Heracles fought a seven headed monster. Each time he cut off a head, another grew in its place. I think we spend our lives slaying monsters. The monsters very often are the voices in our heads

  4. Let’s break this down. Hero comes from the Greek word heros, as defender or protector. We often have to remind those slogan bearers who often never ventured further than the end of one inch line mopping up that we are fighting for acres not freedom, as one of my sups liked to remind us. Thankfully the trees don’t have weapons other than the stray limb that still finds firefighter targets frequently enough.
    With that being said, when we exam the plight of the hero in ancient literature we find similarities in the actions of the women and men who face the metaphorical dragon on a yearly basis.

    *Sacrifice – I don’t have to go deep into this as we all understand the sacrifice of our lives, time, families, and health. I am not alone in this, but when I started the only time you got off was if someone died, and that someone better be within your immediate family. I think we are better with this now. This sacrifice is for the greater good of our fellow citizens, whether it’s protecting their house, barn, or the woods they recreate in and water they drink.
    *Courage – While we may all be accustomed to the risks we take, the definitions of a hero come from the community at large, not the one’s who are doing the task. If we ask most normal human beings out their to rate the risks we take, I believe it will be at the top of the scale, just under gun fights and hunting bad guys. This is not for us to determine but society. To storm into a huge wildfire armed with hand tools and drip torches, well I believe that is courageous, knowing you can’t control all the variables despite your training. To assume otherwise is hubris.
    *Perseverance – If you’ve worked 16 hour shifts, 21 or 14 day tour after tour for an endless summer and then went home and burned for a month to protect our neighborhoods from hazardous fuels, you understand the meaning of perseverance. It also relates to our ability to bring order to the chaos. To control the operational tempo and right the disorganized world again. To slay not necessarily the fire dragon, but the dragon of chaos in the face of surmounting adversity. This takes a special breed of folks that I venture to say can’t be found around every corner.
    *Ingenuity – As Hercules alluded to above kept facing terrible chores and tasks thought unmanageable, he was able to think through the problem despite being known as a mindless brute. If you’ve been faced with a challenging snag, a Mark 3 that refuses to cooperate, or line placement for a huge indirect firing operation, you have faced this beast and undoubtedly more times than not triumphed. I’ve seen this same ingenuity in just about every medical incident response I’ve been a part of.

    While we may not view ourselves as heroes, which is a good thing, the community at large values us as heroes. Mindful of that we bare a burden of responsibility and accountability, to follow through with our moral integrity to do the right thing, honor the sacred duty that’s been bestowed upon us, and respect not just each other in the fire service, but the citizens we serve and the earth we trod upon to chase the dragon year after year.

  5. Pingback: What he said… – Thinking it Through

  6. My response to the question that plagues the wildland firefighting community. The burning question that asks why so many fire fighters end their own lives. Am I worthy of being a hero or am ok being me?
    I am not sure why we find it so hard to ask for help or if it has anything to do with our illusion to feeling heroic, or rather not living up to the stigma of being a hero. It can be a lot of pressure, I suppose, if someone were to feel otherwise useless, labeled a hero, only to be unfulfilled by the experience that we actually absorb being wild land fire fighters. It may seem thrilling, no guts no glory , blazing saddle courageous to those who only see the media versions that portray us. When in actuality, all we have done all summer was kick around in the dirt and ash and fall back when the real stuff hits the fan. Missing the glamour and the glory of it all, if that is what we expect from ourselves, or we think that is what is expected of us, I can see how some of us might fall into a sort of depression that when coupled with the strain of the everyday lives of a fire fighter, can overwhelm the emotional walls that we build around ourselves just to endure the coming season. I believe that we build a tougher than nails persona within ourselves with the 16 hour work days throughout the summer, and like a warrior returning home from battle, in the off season we long for the the comradery and the feeling of worth that it brings us. So when our relationships begin to sour and the life style is not supported by those around us we can start to feel overwhelmed. When your spouse demands you get a job that does not keep you away for months at a time and you know that there is no other job that would fulfill you like fighting the wildland fire. Especially if you give in and try to live that life and fail, often over and over again. It can be hard to find common ground, and nearly impossible for those around us to understand the draw, the passion that we feel. And without that support, we can start to feel betrayed by everyone and ourselves. Am I nobody’s hero or am i everyone’s fool. When the passion inside you fades away, or worse, is ripped away and you feel that its lost inside of you, help may seem like an impossible dream that we are not even worthy of. Myself, having been a wildland fire fighter for nearly 30 years, I never felt heroic or particularly brave. What I did feel was appreciated. I felt like I was a part of a bigger picture that tackled devastating problems for people who could only watch from the sidelines. I loved getting thankyou cards from grade school kids and whole families of people standing on a street corner shouting their love and thank yous . I loved the banners, and the gifts, small but thoughtful, having no value except the love that created them. But it was more than even that. I loved hiking up the highest mountain , and the feeling that I just could not take another step but by simply turning around with open eyes, take in all of Gods glory and some of the most beautiful sights ever to be seen. With these small gestures I held a sense of pride. Not pompous, look at me sort of pride, but the deeper feeling that i am worthy of being alive. Because I live. And I contribute, in my mind, to the greater good. I make a difference, In many ways, big and small. Witnessed or not, matters little, or not at all. I am a wildland fire fighter. It is a passion within me that can not be forgotten or buried. And even in retirement , I am glad that I was called.

  7. I can only say that I was in wildfire suppression and investigation work for 62 years. I am humbled by the comments above and proud to have been a part of it all.

  8. I think when we perpetuate the hero stuff (shirts, etc) we reinforce a perception in the public that we can do anything, and will always have a solution. Then, when we have to disengage from a wildland fire, or let a structure burn when we use a defensive tactic, we get blowback from the public. We have created this myth of capability that our agencies have, and it’s sometimes hard to make it a reality. TV, movies, etc also play into it, but the dragon slayer idea also reinforces it as well. When I’ve spent time with firefighters from other countries, they point this out, and they remark how it’s difficult for us to be able to disengage with our negative consequences. They have less of the hero worship culture, and also find that citizens more readily accept what their actual capabilities are.

  9. I preach “Forget the hero stuff…hero probably means your dead!” Too often the LODD victims where just that – Victims.
    And occasionally perpetrators.

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