The rivalry between police officers and firefighters has a lengthy history. From sporting events like the Bacon Bowl, to hilarious sendups on Youtube (check out “Cops vs. Firefighters), this good natured ribbing usually ends with a few laughs and the following admissions:
“I don’t know how you guys handle those domestic disputes.” says the firefighter.
“I don’t know how you go into burning buildings.” says the cop.
That is the essence of our mutual respect.
I was reminded of that after learning of the disastrous loss of 19 firefighters of the Yarnell, Arizona wildfire (TNT 7/1). I spoke with a friend, a veteran Seattle firefighter, about the tragedy. He surprised with this statement:
“I couldn’t do that job.”
Having been inside a burning building before, I will readily admit I wouldn’t want the job of a traditional firefighter. But what stood out in his admission is the notion that fighting wildfires is one step too close to the inferno.
Many images of forest fires include footage of forest service firefighters, the yellow-shirted men and women who are often filmed setting backfires amidst high temperatures under boiling black clouds of smoke. Theirs is a workplace less natural wonderland and more the stark landscape of hell.
The speed at which wildfires spread, coupled with the ever-changing and capricious winds that circulate around them, obviously make for perilous conditions. That is especially true for the hotshots who work the front lines of the worst blazes.
This particular breed of firefighter is largely out of the public eye. Normally lugging heavy gear for miles, used to living in wilderness areas for days at a time and subsisting on army rations and little sleep, these firefighters are clearly motivated by a love of the outdoors as well as a strong sense of duty.
Thus, when the Yarnell fire turned on its head last week and roared overtop the 19 hotshots battling the blaze, it took the lives of professionals who will be difficult to replace. That is true for a grieving nation, and especially true for the loved ones they left behind.
If any good can come of this, then perhaps it will be from the lessons learned. Perhaps our federal government will recognize the dangers of underfunding such a critical endeavor as forest fire suppression.
At the very least, we owe the families of those 19 men a debt of honor, a debt we can repay by ensuring those who fight our country’s wildfires have the proper equipment, resources, training and support.
Regardless, for the work they do, the firefighters who work to keep our nation’s forests safe have my admiration and respect.