I worked for the US Forest Service in 1991 as a cartographer working on the Umpqua National Forest and based at the Cottage Grove Ranger District. Like all able-bodied people who work for the Forest Service, in the summer months you helped fight fires. This was actually the job that I wanted to do.
Late in the season I and my crew had been dispatched to the Wanua Point Fire above Bonneville Dam. I had just been demobilized from that fire back to my unit the day before when I was told that I was going to be sent on another fire, this one at Multnomah Falls. This was a bit of a shock to me because my crew had just stopped at Multnomah Falls the day before on our way home from the Wauna Point Fire.
Our crew was a compilation of firefighters from 3 different ranger districts. We came from the Diamond Lake R.D., the North Umpqua R.D. and the Cottage Grove R.D. Since we came from Southern Oregon we didn’t actually arrive to the falls lodge till around 4. By then most of the suppression efforts had been done around the lodge and it was out of danger. One thing that does stick out in my mind is that the lodge concession stand remained open during this time for the firefighters. They were so grateful for what we did that everything was free. We ate and stocked up our line packs.
Since we got there late in the day they assigned my crew (FSR, Forest Service Regulars) and 2 hot shot crews to start fire attack at the top of the falls doing night shift. I still remember the safety briefing where it was drilled into us that we were to get nowhere near the edge of the cliff since we might not see it at night. This meant that we would be digging our control line uphill of the upper trail and would not attack between the trail and the cliffside.
By the time we got up to the viewing platform it was dark. I remember we all took a rest and went out on the platform that night. Since it was night and we were on the east side of the falls we couldn’t see the fire or smell any smoke, even though we knew the fire was close by. It was beautiful up there and we could barely hear the cars and trucks going below us on I-84.
We crossed the creek and came around the upper trail and found where the fire had already crossed and chose that as our anchor point. Now we were a forest service regular crew assigned to work with 2 hotshot crews so we knew the pace of work would be a little more intense that night. So did our crew boss. We also knew he was looking at our crew getting a comparable ranking as the shot crews so he could promote. That desire almost got us killed that night.
Since it was only us 3 crews (about 60 firefighters) we started digging line. We dug a lot and we dug it fast. In the process we got very spread out on the line in order to control it, not paying attention to what the fire was doing below the trail.
It was about 6:30 in the morning and I remember being up on the hillside watching the sun come up over the Columbia. What an awesome sight. But as a wildland firefighter you are trained to notice the little things in the environment. About that time I noticed that my lips were starting to get chapped (humidity dropping) and the breeze from the East was starting to pick up (gorge winds). And about that time everything broke loose.
I remember the radio squawking with my crew boss telling everyone to immediately start heading down our fire trail. Apparently, the fire below us had picked up and was threatening the unburned area right above the falls. I and my squad started moving down towards the flames as fast as we could when our crew boss, in a panic, started yelling over the radio for all of us left on the hill to “go to the black”. This meant we were suppose to go towards the area that was already burnt. But at this time I was about 15-20 yards away from the trail and had fire on both sides of me. I was already committed and I told my crew boss that I would be coming through. I slid on my butt the last 20 feet (not intentionally) and when I hit the trail I could not see my feet due to the smoke and sparks flying up in my face. I knew the trail went off to my left and in about 20 feet I was out of it and in the black. This is when we started to see the crowning. In the picture by Steve Terrill I and my crew would have been just right of where that tree is crowning.
At this point our escape route back towards the falls was cut off and we were standing in the area where it had burnt that night. Now, where we were had been a ground fire which meant that all the overhead canopies of the trees were still intact. This meant we were stuck. On one side was a crowning fire that blocked our preplanned escape route. (1 ½ of the shot crews were able to get to the other side before it blew up) On another side was the falls, which would have meant certain death. And where we were being in unburned fuels.
We looked around and started to see what we could do. With the trees starting to crown and run we knew that if the fire came our way we couldn’t outrun it. And because of the unburned fuels in the trees our fire shelters were useless. So, there we sat, less than 15 yards away, and watched.
If you have never been around a crowning fire like this, it sounds just like a freight train, except no clackity-clack or whistle. I’ve been around these a number of times in my firefighting career and it is enough to make any firefighter put their head on a swivel.
At that point the fire raced up the hill where we had been cutting line the night before instead of toward us. I’m not sure if it is accurate but I was told later that we lost about 20 acres of woods in about 5 minutes.
At this point we were stuck. We sat there for a while and then proceeded to hike through the fire to the other side where we were picked up by bus that took us back to the lodge to get our vehicles. At this point I had been working for about 30 hours straight.
A few things that always stuck in my throat over this incident were that we were too spread out, didn’t have proper safety lookouts and we didn’t tie our fire line in properly at the upper trail. All of this was because our Crew Boss cut on safety in order to get a good performance rating…and we all knew it.
That was the closest I ever came to death on a fire in my years with the Forest Service. It took me 23 years before I would ever go back up to the top of Multnomah Falls. This time I took my 21 year old daughter with me and told her the story. I told her the story of how I met God on that hillside and how he brought me through. And I told her that if that had not happened the way it did both her and I would not be around to share the story.
South Carolina State Fire Chaplain
Former US Forest Service firefighter
I've been watching the fires out West this last month and enjoying fond memories of fighting wildland fires in Oregon. Every time I read the news I just want to hop on a plane (from South Carolina) and head back to the fire lines. It's been quite a few years since I've dug hot line (though I'm still qualified). Now something in me wants to get back into the fight. Then again, there are some things that I do not miss. I think anyone who has fought wildland fires for any amount of time could relate.
I’m praying for today’s wildland firefighters. Keep up the good work. You've got a tough, but wonderful, job.
Chaplain Chris Wade
Ok, guilty as charged. I've passed on my share of gallows humor. Having worked in the police and fire service for 16 years I have had my share of bizarre days/nights and calls. I mean, what do you say about the guy who calls 911 for an ambulance at 3:30 in the morning for a toothache? Or, what can you say about the guy who drives away from the hit and run and leaves his license plate at the scene of the crime? Or worse yet, what about the guy who tries to shoot himself in the head….but misses?
Black humor, or better known as gallows humor, seems to be standard practice to those of us who work as first responders. According to Dartmouth Medicine Magazine a survey of EMT/paramedics found that 90% admitted to using gallows humor. Gallows humor is a witticism in the face of death, destruction or other perceived major stressor of life. And as anyone who has been in emergency services knows, most of the calls to 911 for service are an emergency for the caller, no matter how asinine we know they are. And our humor in the face of horror/emergency helps us put these events into perspective.
As first responders we not only see the horror of life first hand, but we also see the absurdity of what some people do with their life. In this our empathy is stretched to the limits. It is commonly taught by senior members to newbies that what we say among ourselves in the rig or back at the firehouse should never be told to the patient, family members or bystanders. But in our mishandling of our words there have been many a first responder who has lost their job and loved career because they said the wrong thing in front of the wrong person.
But as a chaplain I have been wondering if gallows humor is even right for me. In the fire service gallows humor among the staff tends to build a bond among the responders. A bond that is also needed as an effective chaplain. One that says that I am allowed to be one of the gang. Gallows humor is also used by first responders as a psychological pressure relief valve or way to handle the stress of the job that is increasingly more difficult as our society grows. And it gives us a sense of power to an otherwise powerless situation. And as a chaplain who sees the horror of life, sometimes that pressure relief valve can be mighty welcoming.
But let's be real about it. Gallows humor is judgmental, demeaning, dehumanizes, belittles and objectifies people already in vulnerable positions and situations. And if I am a man of integrity, shouldn't what I say in front of my fire guys be the exact same thing I can say in front of the patients and their families…and my God? Shouldn't I be the caring person, no matter how stupid I see the call?
What we are talking about, ultimately, is how we handle stress. I mean, if we didn't handle the stress of this job, we would all have very short careers or wind up the psychiatric wing of the hospital. If we don't find a way to cope with all the vicarious traumatization that we experience then it would stay bottled up in us until it comes out inappropriately. It seems that one of the more common ways of handling the stress is through sharing gallows humor.
Now, remember, as I write this the only one I can really point my finger at is me. I know that in my weakness (lack of sleep) more people look like idiots and are prone to my gallows humor. I also know that gallows humor is here to stay in the fire service. In fact, I know that if I tried to squelch it among my fire guys I would probably come across as a prude and that would be the end of my connection with my firefighters. But how far can and should I go as a chaplain?
It is said that the opposite of judgement is compassion. In the gospels we see that Jesus expressed compassion for those who were sick and hurting or were without a leader. In this we never saw Him mock the crowds, but instead have great compassion on them. Now, I realize that humor must be part of every believers life. But humor at the expense of those to whom we minister just doesn't seem right. It doesn't show integrity.
But what do we do with the stress of the call? Jesus found time to get away and spend it in prayer talking with Father God. While this may not always be an option for hurried first responders I believe it is a model to shoot for. The stresses of this job will tend to suck the life out of you. But as a chaplain I know that I must follow and demonstrate a different model for stress relief. So, how am I going to handle it when those around me start talking in gallows humor? Well, I hope I will give them all the same grace I need.
It’s natural for people try to keep an emotional distance between them and the bad things in life, but as a Fire Chaplain I’ve seen some pretty awful things first-hand. I have been present with families at the worst time of their lives. Countless times I have given family members notice that their loved one has died, and sometimes died in the most horrific way. So, when I was working for a local fire department I would regularly get asked about this part of my job as the department chaplain: “How can you do what you do?”
The simple answer is, “That is where I see God.” I see God meeting people in the death/grief process, so that is where I go. Let me explain.
It’s a holy moment.
In the moment of life/death I see the one who has created us all. Life and death are truly in His hands. What a person has done with the life that God has given them between their first and last breaths and how they got to this point is something I may not see, but I see this holy moment where they meet their Creator. This is a time that God has especially for each of us, His creation, and it is sacred and holy.
It’s a time of grief.
For the family, this is usually a time of intense grief. They have lost their loved one. I have found that everyone handles this time a little differently, but most would agree that they would rather have their loved one back. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Jesus, the one who knew the greatest grief, says that He meets people in their deepest grief and walks with them. In Psalm 23 God says He is with us while we walk through the valley. It is my privilege as a chaplain to affirm (verbally or by my presence) that God cares for and is with those who grieve.
It’s a time for life.
Luckily, though, grief is not the end of the story. As a crisis response chaplain, I don’t usually get to walk through the entire grief process. But I do get to plant that seed of life, life seen not only in the power of the resurrection but also in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring hope and life to our life here on earth. Death is not the end. Life will go on. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the believer finds hope and ultimately resiliency.
This last week I went to another funeral for a firefighter brother. Since I just started with my new fire service appointment I didn't know him personally, but that didn't really matter. I have found that this brotherhood extends beyond the bounds of actually meeting someone. I was there to honor my brother and to support those who have been left behind. While I have been to a number of funerals and it always impresses me the depth of the brotherhood of the fire family.
As I was researching this blog post I found a number of articles on the demise of the brotherhood of fire and it disturbed me. Are we really losing the brotherhood? Is the bond that is forged by this profession becoming weak with this new generation of firefighters? I would hope not.
The brotherhood of the fire service spans geography, social, ethnic and religious bounds. It goes beyond pay or volunteer and luckily it goes beyond political ideology. This brotherhood is literally tested in fire. This video from the South Carolina State Firefighters Association tells story that the brotherhood spans even battle lines.
Even though we have differences, like those firefighters on different sides of the war, we are brothers and sisters. Our service is to our fellow citizen and to each other. It still means something when you see that maltase cross in the back window of the car in front of you. You automatically know something special about that person.
As fire chaplains, we are also a part of this deep tradition and brotherhood. In a lot of cases the chaplain doesn't carry the hoses or drive the apparatus. The chaplain isn't usually an EMT or a fire officer, though sometimes we are. No, a chaplain deals with the issues that injure the heart and soul of firefighters and the people of the community we serve. These are the wounds that usually take a long time to heal…if they heal at all. We are a reminder to all that God is here and that he cares.
So, here's to you my fellow chaplains. Thank you for keeping your firefighters in your prayers. Thank you for walking with them when they struggle and for celebrating the culture of the fire service. And thank you for being part of the brotherhood.
About the Author
Chris Wade is a chaplain for Providence Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina and is the State Fire Chaplain for the Division of Fire and Life Safety. He has served as a fire chaplain and EMT with the Santa Clara Fire District in Eugene, Oregon as well as a police officer with the Lane County Sheriff and the Hawaii County Police and an EMT in Charlotte, NC