firefighter

The Misunderstood Heroes Dancing With Flames to Save Lives

California's wildland firefighters aren’t ‘battling’ fire — they're trying to understand the thing they dearly love

In April, a 25-year-old Marine Corps veteran with the username “jrocausmc” posted in the message forum of Firehouse.com, the website for trade publication Firehouse Magazine. “Need some advice on getting into wildland firefighting,” he wrote. Married with two kids and likely moving his family to Michigan in a couple of years, he was looking for something a bit different than his private security job in Kansas City.

“I’ve been interested in wildland firefighting since I was still in the military,” he explained, asking if he ought to change his college major (on top of everything else, he was in school!) to something forestry-related. Months later, President Trump would draw the ire of firefighters by blaming devastating wildfires in California on “poor forest management,” a claim the experts were swift to debunk. But, unlike municipal firefighters, a wildland firefighter does often have an advanced degree, typically in forestry or other relevant fields like watershed management and civil engineering.

That’s because, as Dr. Timothy Ingalsbee of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology (or FUSEE) tells me on a phone call, “science is absolutely critical” to the mission of the wildland firefighter, who has a markedly different experience than the urban one. Whereas the latter seeks to prevent or snuff out conflagrations that threaten life and property, the former has to work with fire, a necessary, healthy fact of nature.

Unfortunately, media narratives lean on the “war” metaphor: Firefighters are written as soldiers in a valiant battle against the elements. It’s all too easy to transplant the image of a city firefighter in a burning building to the rural, wooded setting, but this distorts the reality. “They’re billed as heroes, bravery and courage, death-defying and all that,” Ingalsbee says. “And it’s true to some extent, but the real aim is to be safe. No tree is worth the life of a 20-year-old kid.” The idea of military sacrifice does not apply.

Rather, the wildland firefighter is posed in a fine balancing act, one with too much nuance for most headlines. FUSEE, which Ingalsbee co-founded, is a public advocacy group with the goal of stemming obsolete approaches to fire management by reasserting a responsibility to the landscape. “We are not really fighting flames — we are fighting forests, and the collateral damage on soils, streams, vegetation, and wildlife habitat in America’s public wildlands is taking an unacceptable toll,” their website declares. “At the same time, taxpayers are spending billions of dollars on suppression, with much of that money spent on futile, environmentally destructive and ecologically counterproductive actions that put firefighters at unnecessary extra risk.” This is what Ingalsbee, who worked on those front lines for a decade, means when he questions the notion of wildland firefighters as noble warriors. “The hero thing is nice,” he says. “But many places, we’re sent to do not very heroic things at all, and that hurts the spirit.”

The sense of “futility” that Ingalsbee attaches to aspects of the job is but one of the stressors wildland firefighters face. “It selects for people who like hard work,” he says, “a little adrenaline rush, some adventure — but the toil is hard. There’s sleep deprivation; you could be working 16-hour days or more, sometimes 24 hours.” Whereas municipal firefighters are “big burly people who batter down doors,” their wildland counterparts are built for endurance, “hour after hour in multiple conditions.” There’s no getting around the smoke inhalation, either: The doctor himself has lifelong lung damage that interferes with a snorkeling pastime. All told, he says, there are “real limits of the human capacity” to keep working in spite of these factors, and while there is a 20-year compulsory retirement term, “most firefighters’ bodies are spent long before then.”

As dedicated as they are to public service, they aren’t subjecting themselves to that extreme physical labor and duress because they see fire as their nemesis.

“The media serves up fear and hatred of fire,” Ingalsbee says, “but the wildland firefighter loves fire. … They start off as being young people who like working outdoors.” But key to their calling is “a primordial attraction to fire we have as a species. They love working with fires; they’d rather be fire-lighting than putting fires out. Dancing with flames in the wilderness was a major attraction for me. And fire crews are being sent out to kill the things they love.”

To make matters worse, they’re up against a bureaucratic inertia that results in misguided responses to wildfire (Ingalsbee remarked that air tankers, for one, are “flying blindly” in smoke and only useful in a narrow range of scenarios), as well as a federal resistance to ecological study. “That’s what makes the Trump administration so dangerous,” Ingalsbee says. “It wants to eliminate the Joint Fire Science Program [a project that overlaps the Forest Service and six Interior Department agencies]. Dealing with fires without the best available science? It’s insane.” He adds that wildland firefighters have no doubts about how the climate is trending: “There are few, if any, climate change deniers on the front lines of these fires. Firefighters know this — most of the public don’t — that we are only really successful in stopping the spread of fire when the weather conditions enable it. Commanders will say, ‘Mother Nature is really helping us out here.’ Well, Mother Nature is who put the fire there in the first place!” In fact, the vegetation craves the fire: Great Sequoias, as he mentioned, need it to reproduce.

All the political and economic pressures, however, demand that wildland fire services figure out how to avert or neutralize every fire, which would be categorically impossible even if climate research weren’t being censored at the highest levels. Moreover, preemptively stamping out small fires that should be left to burn is adding to the scale of the major fires that later rage out of control. This is the existential bind the wildland firefighters live in — what Ingalsbee terms a “damned if we’re successful, damned if we’re not” situation. In his view, FUSEE represents “military veterans against making war,” while the generals still in charge are “fighting the last war,” failing to account for the new and still shifting realities of the delicate conversation between humans and these unavoidable infernos. “Life is a condition of fire,” he says, and the only way to truly eliminate the threat would be “to level everything, all plant life, pave it over.”

Clearly, no wildland firefighter wants that. But Ingalsbee is optimistic that they — with FUSEE’s help — can change the old paradigms and public perceptions that make their job exceptionally difficult. He’s heartened, for one, by how many women are now “entering fire service at all levels,” since they “take some of the testosterone overload out of the scene” and excel at collaborative teamwork where a man might overvalue his individual role. Overall, he’d like to see more young people sign up to wrangle with fires in a smarter way. “That’s one of the green jobs I foresee in the future,” he says. But perhaps most importantly, the rest of us will have to understand that the wildland firefighters are not an army, and they above all want to understand these blazes, not simply extinguish them. To ensure that we live safely as the flames play their part on this volatile planet. “We can’t prevent, but we can prepare,” says Ingalsbee. “We can’t suppress, but we can restore ecosystems that are enhanced with fire. We can do that.”

It just happens to be a bit more complicated than aiming a hose, is all.