There’s a Fire in them Fields

When I first told my California girlfriends back home that I was dating the Fire Chief of the Volunteer Fire Department here there were two and only two responses:

  1. “Oh my god, how old is he?” Yea, I guess when I hear Fire Chief I think of an older man with a huge mustache. He can only check one of those boxes. And…
  2. “Of course you are. Of course.”

Geez. I hadn’t thought of it as obvious until each and every one of them said that. I sensed a pattern…

I’ve always been interested in a more rugged lifestyle and hey, I’ve always worn cowboy boots year round, so I guess it does make sense that I would be attracted to a rugged place and a rugged cowboy-esque (think classic Marlboro, not rhinestone) man to go with it. The Fire Chief part was just a little title icing on top of the obvious cupcake, I guess.

Growing up and honestly pretty much until now, the only interactions I’d had with fire departments had been dichotomous and rarely fire related. I’d admired fire fighters as a kid and keep that wonderment and respect with me still to this day. I’d had child like interactions with fire personnel that I wasn’t acquainted with, like being sprayed off by fire hoses at the end of a 10k Mud Run I completed a few years ago.

On the opposite side of things, I also used to hang out with friends in high school who were part of the Volunteer Fire Department in the area with whom I would get into more trouble than public service. Sneaking into the Fire House to have a party (with the radios blaring in case of emergency and the guys on duty staying sober, don’t worry) was a common weeknight activity. But neither of the two interactions really had much to do with fire other than hoping that during the party that we would all get to slide down the ladder.

Firefighting to me was a very distant reality. One which I admired but did not see myself participating in. Looking back I’m not sure if it’s because I felt I had come upon the game too late ((most of my friends had been in the VFD (Volunteer Fire Department) for years already)) or if it was too much of a boy’s club to break into, or if, as a shorty I was too physically intimidated. I do know that it intrigued me, but I never pursued it.

So, upon moving here and finding my (apparently obvious) partner in crime who just so happened to be Fire Chief of the VFD in town, I again felt fire pique my interest but again shied away. The Chief holds meetings for the VFD on Wednesdays and I would conveniently always be working or busy.

That was last year.

However, come the middle of Winter last year with all the grant proposals and planning for the year ahead taking place in the middle of our small cabin, I started to get interested and invested and started thinking towards this year. I still felt intimidated. I still felt it was a bit of a boy’s club. But after talking about it we realized that in the event of a fire, considering how much we like to be together, we likely would be together. If The Chief was called to a fire I could either arrive with him, untrained and unable to do much to help, or I could come to trainings, learn the equipment and become a member of the VFD.

Me?

It didn’t seem quite real, or feasible for that matter. I tried different angles to see if The Chief really was serious about needing me there. I tried to get out of it, but at the same time somewhat hoped he would push me towards it.

In true Chief fashion, he did.

“There’s no reason why you can’t do anything at the VFD that I can do and there’s no reason for you not to know how to help when we live in such a vulnerable area to fire. You’ve got this.”

Well, shoot. There’s no arguing that. We do live in a vulnerable area. We are in rural Alaska. The road to the town is 60 miles of pothole ridden gravel and dirt. Outside help would be a long time coming. We should know what we are doing. We are the initial attack force.

 

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Changing out the Smokey Sign to High Fire Danger. Only you.

 

So, I resolved to go to meetings and try my best.

 

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Not a bad place to train, I guess.

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Piss packs and water reserves and mountains, oh my!

And it’s a good thing I did.

Three days after our second meeting in which we practiced running the different pumps on the different trucks and in which I tried, with fail, to memorize the order of operations to get water flowing, there was a fire.

Sure enough, The Chief was right. The first fire of the area and we were together, only now unlike last year, I could help.

A neighbor had come by to report smoke down the road from our house. Erratic winds had caused it to flow in his direction but not ours (we live on opposite sides of the fire and the winds had sent it his way. He also had to pass the area to get home whereas our turnoff is before the site). Smoke? The Chief had been alerted about a controlled burn in the area but had been assured the night before that it had been tucked in for the night and was completely out.

Or so they thought.

But they were wrong.

By the time The Chief and I got to the burn site there was not only smoke but open flames. Fire is tricky like that. She can seem like she’s gone and then, with just the right fuel from a windy day, she can pick right up as if resurrected from the dead.

 

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A panoramic view of the burn site.

 

The winds were just so that day and the temperatures (for Alaska) were cooking that the situation could have spelled disaster. Surrounded by dead Spruce trees and fields of dried grass, we arrived to the open flames and immediately got to business. We live a mere 5 minutes down the road. That fire could have beaten us home if it caught the right wind, and then beaten our home to a pulp. The Department isn’t equipped for structural firefighting and so we would have tried to contain the fire but likely wouldn’t have been able to save our home. We would have had to watch it burn while we tried to contain it so we didn’t also have to watch our friends’ houses burn as well.

The firestarter (or rather the person who ordered another to oversee the fire) was called and told of what was happening and that we required immediate help. He may have thought that the fire was out but unfortunately he was wrong. Further, a fire should never have taken place the day before in the conditions we were experiencing and it should have been overseen by a larger group with better water back-up had things gone wrong. He sent a crew to help us to handle the situation.

Our neighbor had to drive the fire truck to the site while we watched the fire. We had left the truck in town, stationed to be near the more populated areas where fire seemed more likely. Of course, it was the day that we should have brought it home. When you live in a town where it takes twenty minutes minimum to get from our house to town in a loaded fire truck and there are only three functioning trucks in the area, it seems right that it should be centrally located and easily accessible by qualified members of the VFD if need be. But now, we were on our side of the bridge and the river without an immediate truck response.

When resources are limited, it’s hard to know how to best play them but from now on that truck will be with us every second, ready to respond and the two others will live on the opposite side of the river, poised for attack.

 

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I seriously can’t imagine a better color scheme. I love that truck.

 

So, with the fire truck arrived and a hand crew to boot, we started at it. Having just gone through my first round of training, I figured I should defer to our neighbor and to The Chief to operate the pumps.

Wrong.

“It’ll be good training. Fire her up.”

Gulp.

O.k.

Thankfully, they were there to answer any questions which arose and I was able to get water flowing within minutes. Then, of course, I immediately walked away from the pump to ask The Chief a question while our neighbor headed out with the hose.

 

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Easy-peezy, right?

 

Big mistake.

The pump runs at whichever pressure you set it at. That being said, if you walk away from the pump and the pump runs out of water and you’re still trying to run the pump, well, it will run. It will run itself right into the ground and blow up.

When you have three fire trucks total for a great expanse of land it’s best to keep all three functional. It would have taken almost an hour to get a different truck over to us had I broken the pump and it takes hours to get to town and weeks to replace the pump. Overall, it’s just best not to break it in the first place.

The neighbor quickly reminded me of all of this with just one quick point and shout.

“You walked away!”

I ran back to the pump.

“This is your station. You watch your water levels. You watch your guys. You watch your pump” said The Chief.

 

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A few hand signal snafus (we didn’t really cover those yet) and a lot of digging and water later and the fire was contained and put out. I brought the throttle down slowly and then killed the engine. All was quiet again as everyone seemed to stop and look at what had become of the fire and to what could have been.

 

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Having been surrounded in refuse smoke, we all stunk to high heaven but even smelling like a dump couldn’t break my spirit. I had helped. I had run the pump. It hadn’t been perfect, but I had learned and most importantly, I had gone to training even though I had been intimidated. I kept imagining myself just standing there, feeling helpless as The Chief did all the work and I was so glad that a different reality had been the case instead. While I ran the pump and our neighbor ran the hose, The Chief could call and report the fire, take wind speed measurements, check conditions and oversee the effort. I would have missed out on helping because I was intimidated and afraid to fail. What a waste that would have been and in a different situation, what a danger that could have been. An ego at bay (momentarily) helped keep a fire away.

Within the hour The Chief had been called onto patrolling duty by the Department of Forestry. 12 hour days of driving the area back and forth and up and around to monitor campfires from visiting campers and to be on the lookout for developing weather systems, smoke and the like. To me, living in or near a city, I never even knew to contemplate just how much attention goes into hyper rural fire prevention. A lightning strike could be the beginning of a fire. A cigarette butt or an unattended campfire, or sparks from metal contact or any number of things could start small and turn into something very dangerous. In a city, response is easier to mobilize (though the fire is no less dangerous). Out here, we are on our own for precious hours. And so, he is on watch for anything and everything that could lead to fire.

Two days later of patrolling later, there was a fundraiser for the VFD.

 

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The event of a couple days past was abuzz in the community and so was the reality of the importance of the VFD. I watched as The Chief spoke to our community of the rising numbers of fire, the elevated danger of fire with our high temperatures and erratic winds and the dwindling water levels.

 

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The historic Rec Hall

 

Throughout the night, the mountains of delicious potluck foods (seriously, this place can throw a potluck) and the music and dancing, I kept looking at The Chief with a new respect and a special sort of awe. I knew what he did was of great importance but I guess I hadn’t understood just how much was riding on his back. When he said the ‘fire was out’, the fire was out but what if it had sparked up again? It would have been on him. Placing the trucks and training his team and keeping the equipment functioning and funded. In the end, it all rests on his shoulders.

I’ve always appreciated being in a role of leadership. I can jump into a situation and see what needs to get done and help to delegate so that it does. But I’ve never been in the constant state of responsibility The Chief is in. I know that I could do it though I can’t say whether I’d volunteer for it, but someone has to.

Seeing The Chief in front of the attendees in this light, seeing him speaking to them, asking for their help since fire is such a community effort, seeing him in this situation of responsibility did make it obvious. I further understood what my girlfriends’ saw (or heard from me by phone) immediately. I love seeing this serious side, this side that makes me and others feel safe. This side that knows what the relative humidity levels are every morning and watches the sky like a hawk scans the ground. I love seeing him in Chief Mode and well, it’s Summer now. ‘Tis the fire season. I also love how Chief Mode affects me. I take myself more seriously now. When he asks me what the water level is off-hand, I answer confidently. At trainings (instead of being the goof-off I usually was in class) I listen because I know it could come into play and now, I’ve seen it come into play and seen the potential mistakes in play. There’s nothing like a sense of urgency or emergency to challenge oneself and I hope each time to better and better be able to respond. I also hope we never have to respond again but I’ll train every week nonetheless.

Engage Chief Mode.

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…and co-pilot Lou

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