Friday

"Are you a real firefighter?"

This morning I was awoken by a text from my mom. I always act like I am wide awake when she calls and texts me early in the morning like that. This morning I planned on responding and then passing back out, but what she texted me sent my mind racing. I couldn't go back to sleep with all the thoughts and memories bouncing around in my mind, so here I am; I am posting them here as my outlet. I should write it all down but I don't even have a journal. I'll just print it out at some point. 

The text read, "Are you watching the Today Show (sure am not mom, I only ever watch it when I'm with you or when Justin Bieber is doing a Christmas special.. jk... bs)? They are doing a special on the Bastrop Fire, and doing things for the firefighters who lost their homes. I was sobbing." 

THE BASTROP FIRE

I have been a firefighter for five years. That really isn't a lot of  time in the grand scheme of life. There are many people out there who serve for years and years and dedicate their lives to that work. I don't claim to be one of those, I don't even claim to know a ton about fire. Every single fire I fought I learned something new. I know there was so much more I could come to know. But, in five years, I did see A LOT. I saw different fire activity, different situations, I was afraid at times, confident at times, sometimes I knew exactly what we needed to do, sometimes I had no idea. This fire particularly left me feeling all of those things, yet it didn't compare to any other experience in the slightest. It was the most mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted I had ever been. I wouldn't be surprised if it was the most of those things I'll ever feel again.

I know that this job doesn't compare to many others in legitimacy. I know that rarely are lives lost; rarely do we see tragedies that are traumatizing. It happens, don't get me wrong, but it's not as common as police jobs and structure jobs. I know that as far as natural disasters go, there have been floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and endless unthinkable tragedies that have left people homeless, familyless, and absolutely devastated. Compared to a war time situation, this isn't even on the scale of trauma. But it was my trauma. My fire. My experience. And therefore, it was all those things to me. 

A couple of months ago I was in Texas to fight fire. There was severe drought; every firefighter that was available in the country was sent to Texas. We had been getting bored sitting around every day waiting for fires to start, so when we got the call to go to Bastrop we were ready for it. It makes me sick to think I was happy, excited even, that there was a fire. Something to do. An escape from monotony. How naive I was about how unhappy the experience would be. I was completely blind to the fact that people were losing their homes, some their lives. I had no idea, I just wanted to fight some fire. 

We got the call at about 11 at night, we were told to be ready to head out at 0600 the next morning. We did so, and were in Austin at about 1400 that day (it was a long road trip with few bathroom breaks which is no bueno for me). Bastrop is just south of there. As we are driving in the general direction, I see not only one, but two columns of smoke. Then a third. Fire everywhere. The worst part was that I didn't see forest anywhere. I saw fire and city. It was bizarre. Most fires are fought in the middle of nowhere with little town in between. I didn't understand why.

This is what I saw.


Once we were given  directions, checked in at ICP (incident command post), and headed to the main fire camp (located at an army camp) it was about 1530. We were told we would be working night shift and that it started at 1800. My thoughts were, "great, we have three hours to drive to camp, sleep, get up, eat dinner, and drive back to ICP before 1800." We all knew we weren't getting any sleep before that night shift started. We were right, none of us slept a wink. We ate some sandwiches about 1700 (camp wasn't fully set up yet so the food choices were limited). We got fuel and a Monster (no judgement there, we were headed in to an all night shift after having already worked 12 hours, thanks), and headed back to ICP for instructions. That was when it started to hit me just how insane this night was going to be.

The bosses headed in to a briefing and left us little seasonals outside to wait. As I sat there waiting (and feeling incredibly helpless as I watched the column growing bigger and bigger with every passing minute), countless people came up to me asking questions. People were telling me stories, "I was out on my boat fishing and saw the column, I didn't make it back to my house in time to get anything, all I have are the clothes on my back." And, "Have you seen my friends? They look like (fill in with very not descriptive description of what could be just about anybody).. they don't have a vehicle, I hope they got out in time." And the worst, "I was walking home, the police turned me around, I didn't have time to get anything, I have no insurance. Everything I have in life is in my house that just burned to the ground."

I was in tears before we ever even left to start work.

I was with a bunch of dudes who are unfeeling robots in times like these (that is not a hit at the guys, I wish I were that way, that is why it's always an interesting dynamic to throw females in to typical male jobs, but that's a story for another time) so I tried to hide my emotion. Our instructions were clear as mud, none of us had any idea what exactly we were headed in to do. We didn't care, we just wanted away from the public, and to feel like we were actually contributing. Structure protection, that was all they told us. We headed in to a subdivision that was sketchy already because there was only one way in. Our task force leader basically sent us to divide and conquer. Go find houses about to burn and save them, basically. Leave the ones already burning. I mean, we are not structure firefighters, we have no training or experience, not even enough water on our trucks, to save a home already burning. So prep work, got it. Let's do some work boys.

We take off down a random street and see some fire behind a home. The adrenaline was pumping at this time and we were fired up (pun so intended). We jumped out and ran to the house. We started with the hoses and line digging. We put in fire line all around the home and sprayed out the flames on the fire's edge. We threw all the lawn furniture away from the house, cut down hazardous trees, sprayed the two feet thick pine needles on the roof. We did all we knew how to do, then headed down the street to the next one. Saved it. Feeling great at this point. As we pull up to the next house, the fence is on fire. People jump out without putting on all their gear (packs, hard hats, gloves, etc) and just spray down the fence. Got it. Saved that one. We added more fire line and did similar things as the first houses. We did this several times, several houses. 

We completed several homes in several areas on that road. "We are doing a great thing here," I thought. Then we got a call on the radio. "Come over to such and such road and help so and so engine." We pack up and head over there. As we drive, I see the situation on the other side of the road is completely different. We are driving to the location of the other engines and there is fire everywhere. EVERYWHERE. It is not a line of fire progressing in a particular direction. It is everywhere. I can't tell where the column is, which direction the fire is moving, which way is up basically. That is when it all turned in to a blur of confusion, fear. I can remember it all, every detail, and yet the chain of events all runs together in to one big feeling of being traumatized. 

It was like a movie. It was like I was standing outside myself watching everything happen. The homes were burning. They looked like scary cartoon characters with faces, laughing at how defenseless we were against them. It almost felt like they were mocking our helplessness. We would work so hard spraying down a home, putting in a fire line, and suddenly the roof is on fire and the house is burning down from the inside. So we head to the neighbors to try to stop that one, but something explodes in the first one sending flames and embers everywhere. Now both are burning, and we are watching. Every move we made was one step behind. We would give it our all, only to be left watching the flames envelope our efforts seconds later. 

At one point I was spraying the flames out in a random back yard and a police officer comes to ask me a question.
 "What about that house over there?" 
"Huh?"
"That house up the road, what about it?"
"I'm sorry, sir, I have no idea. I'm just spraying."
He heads up the hill where a fellow firefighter, Aaron, was standing. He asks Aaron what I assume was the same question he asked me. They both point the general direction and then take off toward it. They come back a few minutes later, looking distraught. All the while I am spraying and spraying and my face is melting off from the heat, I am completely oblivious to what is happening. He walks past me and gets back in his cop car. Aaron stands by me, silent for a minute. He then goes on to tell me that it was the officer's house. He had been asking me about his own house. He was asking if we had gotten there in time. I was so one-track minded, I hadn't had put it together. We didn't make it in time, his house was in flames when they had seen it. The officer watched his own house burn to the ground. He hadn't had a chance to go inside and take anything out because, since the start of the fire, he was helping other people escape. I stood, dumbfounded. Embarrassed at my ignorance. 

I know there could have been worse situations. There could have been lives lost, families lost. But in that moment, watching that officer drive away, I thought of his family pictures. I thought maybe he has a son, a daughter, both. Maybe their baby pictures are in a pretty photo album sitting on a shelf inside that house, catching fire as I stood there. Maybe there were family heirlooms, books, birth certificates, college degrees, fingerpaintings, kindergarten art projects, a daddy daughter photo taken from a fishing trip. He'll never get those things back. Most things can be replaced, true, but not everything. The life he built was just destroyed while he watched. While I watched.

It was Labor Day weekend so everyone was out of town. Nobody got the chance to go in and grab their valuables. They had no warning. A total of 1,386 home were lost during the duration of that fire. 1,386 families lost everything.

The night pressed on. We continued on in our haste to save and yet too many times we failed. I was getting discouraged. It felt like a war zone. There was fire everywhere. There were explosions. Loud loud explosions. It hurt my ears. Fire explosions. Fire was running in all directions. At one point they pulled us out of the subdivision because the head of the fire was running at us (wherever the head was, it was all just fire to me) and there was no escape. We pulled out, watched the 200 foot flame front pass while we sprayed out the spot fires it started, then headed back in. It was then that I realized it was about 3 am. I had a headache. My hands had burns on them from forgetting my gloves in my haste. My hair was singed. I was hungry. I was exhausted. But we kept moving. We worked on and on. As the time passed people became aggravated. We were getting on each other's nerves. Yet, we still had each other's backs. The boys, bless their hearts, were so good. So good to me, so good to each other. I really grew to love them that night. Watching as they worked relentlessly, never quitting no matter how discouraging it was. Making sure I was okay constantly. Helping each other, lessening each other's burdens.

We waited for our relief to come. The next shift was supposed to take over at 0600, ending our 24 hour shift. 0600 came and went, and still no relief. The sun came up. We still worked. We kept digging, kept cutting, kept initiating burn out operations and putting out fire. At 10 am I made a stupid comment, "goodness I'm hungry, I can't believe they expect us to work this way without having eaten since last night (going that hard all night with no food for fuel and energy was getting to me)." Aaron simply said, "get over it, Misty, eat an MRE if you have to." Ouch. It was then I realized what a selfish brat I was being. He just wanted to work until he fell over dead trying to save these people's homes, all I could think about was feeding myself. Talk about moment of sad self realization.

In that instant I did this thing I often do where I take a moment to step back and look at the situation I am in from the outside. Sometimes when I do this I wonder how in the heck I got to where I am. This time, I realized it was going on 28 hours of work. Not just 'being on call' kind of work, but hard and exhausting work. We hadn't eaten in 17 hours. We had probably saved 10 out of 350 houses we attempted to save. We were wildland firefighters trying to be structure people. We had no idea what we were doing. We hadn't slept in well over 30 hours.

I also realized there was no where in the world I would rather be.

I have always had this passion and desire within me to help. Every time I see or hear of a tragedy, all I want to do is use what I have been blessed with to help. I have a healthy body, a strong mind, able hands. So many people don't even have so much as those three things. I want to use them for the betterment of people. For the helping of the sick, the afflicted, those affected by tragedy. And there I was, doing just that. I had this overwhelming desire to write to the US Department of Agriculture and ask them not to pay me for the work I was doing. I wanted to just serve and serve until I couldn't stand. I felt so empowered, so re-energized. I was ready for another 30 hours if they would have let me. With this new found desire I pushed myself to the limit. I continued to work but with stronger vigor. My heart was bigger and therefore so was my will. We saved a house. Then two, then three. We saved a total of five in that neighborhood that morning after we were supposed to have been long gone. Staying and saving those homes made all the losses from the night before feel more than worth the effort we had put in, to no avail. I was on top of the world. Relief finally came at about 11:30 that morning. We headed out, back to ICP. They sent us in to Austin to sleep for the day, telling us to be back at 1800 that night. So we did. By the time we went to sleep in Austin it was about 1330. 31 and a half hours. I was too tired to eat, almost too tired to sleep. Stupid tired. The kind where everything is funny and you do things like look for your cell phone while you're talking on it. I passed out, woke up and headed back a few short hours later. Another Monster. Finally some food.

A little girl came up to me, she was about 10 years old.
"Mam, I baked some cupcakes for ya'll at the church, would you like one?"
"No thank you, sweetheart. I appreciate it though."
"Mam, please. This is all I can do to help. Please make me feel better and take my cupcake."
I stare like an idiot in disbelief and take a cupcake.
"Thank you so much for your service, mam."

This little girl just lost everything she has in life. Material things, yes, but at that age material things are some of the most important things. And yet there she was, thanking ME, thanking me for my service, baking me cupcakes. Thinking only of others, never of herself. Oh how I wish I could go back in time (and slap myself for being so ignorant) and thank that little girl for her perfect example of love and charity. Thank her for being such an example of kindness. Thank her for changing my life with her cupcakes of thanks. All I wanted to do was bake every flipping baked good I could ever imagine and give them away to all these humble people.

Everywhere we went it was, "thank you for your service... thank you for what you are doing... let me buy your lunch... let me buy you a Coke to say thanks... you guys are our heroes."

No, Bastrop Texas, you guys are MY heroes.

The next few night shifts were filled with us travelling from burned down house to burned down house putting out any sign of heat and fire we ran in to. That is when the situation hit me like a brick in the stomach. I saw the damage. It was a ghost town of debris and rubble. Only fire places standing with everything in ashes around it. There would be little signs of these people's livelihoods. Pictures frames with the pictures burned out of them, statues, silverware, china. Proof that these people had lives they built for themselves that now lay in ash all over the unforgiving mother earth. The guys that were there with me that night went back to AZ, I was extending and staying for 30 days so another crew came in. The new guys only saw what was left. They were in absolute disbelief of the damage. I tried and failed to describe to them the horror from that night. What it was like to watch the destruction happen while trying and failing to stop it. What it felt like to watch the cop drive away. How I felt talking to the man with no insurance. My words could never do justice to what really happened that night. The pain and sadness hung like a tangible thing in the air. It was so powerful to see the aftermath. It was then I realized how traumatizing the whole thing was. How affected I really was.

I know there are so many worse situations to be in. I know that war doesn't compare. That natural disasters with thousands of lives lost doesn't compare. But this is all I have to compare them to, and it was intense to say the very least. I have never seen anything like it and doubt I will again. My heart goes out to those who lost everything. My hat is tipped to those countless volunteer firefighters who go to work from 9 to 5 at a desk job, and then volunteer doing what I get paid to do just out of the goodness of their hearts. Bless the hearts and lives of those men and women who worked countless hours to do what little they could. Bless the hearts of everyone who works every day in situations like these. The soldiers, firefighters, police, any one in a service position. I thank you for all you do. This one experience changed me forever, and they deal with it all the time.

I am a different person after having been in Bastrop, Texas. I feel blessed to have had the experience. Few people have the chance to see what I saw. I feel humbled and thankful to my Father in Heaven for all that I have, for keeping us safe, for giving me the opportunity to be there and help. It was, above all, a testament of the power and mercy of my Heavenly Father. I know there is a plan. I know He loves us and protects us. I know He was there with me that night and that it was through Him alone that I had the strength to continue on. Countless prayers of family members, community members, and we firefighters are what gave us the ability to do what we did. The experience is one I hold dear to my heart, and one I will never forget. 

1 comment:

M said...

I feel kind of stalkerish, but I just had to tell you how much I loved reading this post. :) I was in tears before I was even close to the end. It's stories like these that make you realize what matters most in your life and how much your life can mean to others, depending on how you live it.

You are an incredible human being, Misty, and I'm lucky to know you... even if I don't know you very well. :) Stay awesome!

<3 - Mikaela