If you’re a good journalist, when somebody offers to let you take a walk in their shoes you should probably do it — even if it means the inevitable, “You did what?” from whoever signs your paycheck.
So when I covered Helmet Peak Volunteer Fire Department’s live fire exercise and Chief Alan Karnas pointed at the blaze said, “You want to go in?” I immediately said, “Yes.”
In this case I was literally walking in another man’s boots, specifically volunteer firefighter Cody Baker’s (and, specifically, straight into a fire).
As Cody helped me suit up in his turnouts and firefighting gear, he stopped for a minute. I was missing one thing — a shave.
“If you have too much facial hair this can go real bad, real quick,” he said.
If you’ve seen me around town, you know I meet the definition of “too much facial hair.”
I see it as a way to save money on razors (I’m a writer). But in this case it was a liability.
“Ah, he’ll be OK,” said another firefighter and before I could say anything about it, clean-shaved Cody pulled an oxygen mask over my face while he told me about the time he singed his beard off fighting fires for the Forest Service.
The story seemed too earnest to be a put-on, but either way, I was past the point of no-return. To back out now would be to prove myself a mincing scribe. Cody started the flow of oxygen and as I sucked in a few noisy breaths I felt vaguely like Darth Vader.
Here’s the thing about fire gear: it looks heavy and it is heavy and it’s hot enough without a burning building to walk into. I imagine firefighting would be a chore even if we humans were covered in asbestos scales, but I felt like I’d been sunk to the bottom of a very deep jacuzzi as I stumbled and shuffled across the desert floor.
“This coat can handle up to 800 degrees,” Cody said.
“That’s really hot,” I mumbled through the respirator. I thought maybe I should have had an extra glass of water that morning instead of a Coca-Cola from the drive-thru.
I climbed up into the empty water tank where the fire was raging and crawled hands and knees through mud, water and ash toward the blaze. The heat was intense and I was thankful for my gear and the fact I couldn’t yet smell any barbecuing facial hair.
Harvey Chartrand let me take the fire hose. As I pulled back on the trigger and the hose kicked back and sent a jet stream straight into the flames sending a wave of heat and steam toward us. I couldn’t remember if I ever said, “I want to be a firefighter when I grow up,” but at that moment I thought I must have at some time in my life. It was fun. It was exciting. I was hotter than I’d ever been in my life. But, for a few minutes, I wasn’t thinking about that.
If that had been a real fire, though, I would have been toast, beard and all.
After all, who in their right mind throws on 50 pounds of gear and plunges headfirst into a burning building? I know I wasn’t pulling anybody out of that fire, I needed a boost just to get up into the water tank. But average people save lives and put their own on the line every day across the state and the country. And if the worst ever happened in Helmet Peak, there are 25 guys who’ve signed up to do the same thing, and they practice for it every Saturday.
It was tough enough to sweat it out, knowing the exit was right behind me and that I had more than a dozen guys behind me to grab my boots and pull me out if I passed out or lit my beard on fire. I was thankful for the men and women who suit up with far fewer guarantees.
And when I crawled out of the tank, pulled off my mask and turnouts, the 100-plus degree summer heat felt about as balmy as the summit of Mount Lemmon. I felt my face. It was dripping sweat, and still hairy.
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