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“About the Dragon Tamers”
By: Tiny, the R-6 Firepup
4-13-00

 Fire suppression, particularly in wildland, provides those who partake of it a challenging occupation, which can be beneficial to the firefighter and to us, the public. However, with every challenge and benefit can come dire detriments. The goal of this piece is to inform those unfamiliar with the world of the firefighters, as to who they are, what they do, how they do it, why they do it, and to give the reader a brief insight into the minds of the “dragon tamers”.
 Wildland firefighters come from various backgrounds. It is not uncommon to meet a group of firefighters who hail from remote mountain ranches to dense urban centers. Despite the wide differences in their location of upbringing, all wildland firefighters share several common bonds.
 The first of these common bonds is a love for their work. No one currently employed as a wildland firefighter, is in a position in which they do not want to do their job. Those that eventually find themselves in that undesirable place, often times transfer into another aspect of the fire suppression arena, or in some cases retire from the fire service entirely.
 Physical and mental qualities of firefighters are another bond they share. The demanding job of wildland firefighters, much like that of their structural brethren, requires that they are in good, if not excellent, physical condition. Their tasks require good mental health and stability which, when coupled with physical ability and rules and regulations of fighting wildland fire, help protect them from harm. Some other qualities shared by firefighters include being flexible, to be able to keep in good spirits while on the job, no matter what the demands; being adaptable, to be able to do the job efficiently no matter what the circumstances; having intelligence and professionalism to be able to train in wildland firefighting methods; and being honest, to admit when a job is too big to handle, and to know that there is no dishonor in avoiding injury or death.
 One more common bond that firefighters share is a willingness to be open, and be a ‘team player’. Firefighters serve on crews, which become their surrogate family. They rely on each other for physical and emotional support. They develop a kind of siblinghood among themselves. Women are regarded more like sisters than romantic engagements, by their masculine counterparts. Crewmembers learn to function in harmony with one another under all sorts of extreme and dangerous conditions. They depend on each other as if their lives depended on it, and they often do. Such bonds are not hard to imagine, since they spend continuous time together on a fire from 3-28 days straight, take a few days off, and usually go the next fire with the same crew.
 To this point, we have concentrated on the similarities among firefighters; now we’ll explore a few of the minor differences. Among the small differences, including gender, is that of post-secondary education. A firefighter need not have a traditional academic education to operate efficiently and safely on the fire line. Moreover, those who do have a degree of some sort may not need it in their firefighting endeavors. Some seasonal firefighters may attend college when not working, and some work either to gain tuition money, or to pay off student loans. Firefighters in management, called “overhead”, typically have at least an Associates Degree. Regardless of traditional education, however, firefighters are among the most highly trained occupational group. Their lives, the lives of their crewmates, and the public depend on their training. One academic researcher who is studying firefighters has noted, “When firefighters are not fighting fire, they are training.”
 Firefighters, while on the job, wear a garb unique from that of the rest of the world. For the sake of mobility, they cannot utilize the heavy, cumbersome fire resistant “turnout” suits worn by their structural fire brethren. Both kinds of firefighting outfits use “Nomex”, a fire resistant fabric. However, wildland firefighters outfits are lightweight and unpadded. Their shirts are colored a bright yellow; their pants, a forest green.  Seldom do they stay so bright while on the line. In fact, firefighters have been known to roll in the dirt to make new shirts look worn. Firefighters wear boots with vibram soles and reinforced toe, designed to reduce ankle and impact stress, and a hardhat with neck shroud to protect from fire and falling objects. Gloves, goggles and an aluminized fire shelter comprise the rest of their safety gear. It is common to see firefighters wearing bandannas as facemasks to filter out some of the smoke, ash and dust. Sunglasses are personal accessories, however if things get too hot, the glasses risk a chance of melting. When firefighters operate a chainsaw they wear chaps to protect their legs from cuts. With all of this, the wildland firefighter is almost ready to do the job.
  Now that we have a base knowledge of whom a firefighter is, let us explore the world in which firefighters do what they do best: putting out wildfires! The term ‘Wildland Firefighter’ should clue the reader that forests, while being most common environment, are not the only places where they work. ‘Wildland’, refers to every place where humans have not often set foot.  The second half of his job title is ‘firefighter’, hence, wildland firefighters put out fires in remote places. They accomplish this with various tools, some more common amongst the different branches of the fire service than others. For the sake of brevity, I will not explore these tools in any length, but their names such as Pulaski and McLeod bespeak their uniqueness.
 As stated, the job of the wildland firefighter is to contain, or halt, the spread of a wildfire, and to extinguish said fire. There are many ways to do this, but all relate to the three key things that make a fire burn. The key elements of a fire are referred to as the “fire triangle”, and once the triangle is complete, the fire burns. Take away any side of that triangle, and the fire wanes and eventually dies. The three sides of the triangle are Fuel, Heat, and Oxygen.
The most common way a fire is contained is by removing fuel. This is done by construction of firebreaks, also known as “control line” or “line”, which are areas of ground (or natural barriers) devoid of any organic material that might ignite and spread the fire across the line, defeating its purpose. Also, a process of removing additional fuels once a line is constructed is called “backfiring” if the fire is at a distance from the line or “burnout” if the fire is close. Crews backfire or burnout by intentionally setting smaller fires inside the control line to widen it and further contain the conflagration.
 The second most common and more difficult way a fire is contained is removing the heat source from the fire. This is accomplished in wildfire by the use of aerial water and retardant drops, which if dropped in weaker parts of a fire can reduce the overall temperatures, and thus the likelihood of fire spreading. Aerial drops are used either to knock fire down or to allow ground crews the time needed to construct fire line.
 Removing oxygen, the third side of the fire triangle, is typically reserved for small ‘spot’ fires and grass fires, in which smothering the flames with mineral soil effectively extinguishes them. This is highly ineffective on large fires. However, regardless of fire size, fire containment is made easier when more legs of the fire triangle are removed.
 Now that we have examined how wildland firefighters do their job, let us examine why they do their job. The firefighter is a breed all to their own, a strange combination of physical ability, mental capability and qualities mentioned above. They find comfort in knowing that they perform a useful task to the nation, however, they are rebuked in the knowledge that sometimes injury and death are married with their work. Also, they can face flak from arrogant or stressed citizens over performance of their job, or their effectiveness. We will examine the more emotional pros and cons of being a wildland firefighter, as based on readings and interviews I have conducted.
 Firefighters are drawn to their profession for many reasons, ranging from their joy of being in nature, to their love of being with the people with whom they work, to their desire to be of service. Many firefighters have recounted to me that fire is not only their profession, but that they actually become it. Some like clear mountain mornings, others like the varied countryside, still more like the physical challenge of the work. One thing that none of the firefighters I interviewed said was that money was what drew them to wildfire. While I found this concept a little mind-boggling at first, I discovered that they were paid in the lower “GS” (General Services) ratings from the Federal Government and only overtime brought their pay up to reasonable levels.
 Facing the stress of the day, firefighters rely on different factors to keep going. To start the morning, some firefighters enjoy coffee so powerful it’ll burn a hole through a steel pot faster than battery acid. Throughout the day, they keep their spirits up by engaging in humorous conversations while working. Some enjoy chewing tobacco or gum or smoking cigarettes, which is less common as the smoker may inadvertently start additional fires. Dispatchers in the office relieve stress through such things as playing with NERF ™ equipment or floating the occasional paper airplane on their breaks. Despite all the things people involved in fire do to relax, when things get serious, their laid back appearance fades quickly and they get the job done.
 Additional stress to the firefighter can come from his or her family. Families typically feel deprived of the presence of their family member who is gone from home to fires for long periods of time. They suffer severe anxiety when tragedy occurs on the fire line, no matter how far removed their family member is from the incident. Such anxieties are transmitted to the firefighter and are made worse by their distance from home. Firefighters must make the time to be with their families, to ease their family’s burdens and, thus, their own.
 Aside from on-the-job stress and personal life stress, firefighters contend with stress that may arise from interactions with arrogant people who look down on them. Sometimes, while making a trip to get commodities for a fire camp, firefighters are met with stiff resistance from passersby. They report having been spit upon, cursed at, even pushed. Thankfully, they have had the sense to know which battles can be won and have avoided turning such unwelcome interactions into a major incident.
 While firefighters have extreme patience with those they serve, they report being most disheartened by the feeling that they serve an ungrateful public. I empathize with them on this and hope to change attitudes. Now that the reader has had a chance to follow along in wildland firefighters’ boots, I personally urge the reader to take the time and reflect on the hardships faced by, and the extremely well done job accomplished by these soot-stained heroes of the wilderness. I close this work with the admonition from Smokey Bear, “Only you can prevent forest fires” and add a rhetorical question from an anonymous source, “If Prometheus was worthy of the wrath of heaven for kindling the first fire upon the Earth; How ought all the Gods honor those men and women who make it their professional business to put it out?”
 

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