It has to be fun to drive a big red fire truck in parades, hitting the siren for the folks on the sidewalk, or to show wide-eyed schoolchildren through the firehouse.
But then, a fire happens or maybe something just as bad, or even worse.
And to realize what that means to the men and women who drive to the edge of flames that can turn on them like a provoked snake, you have to be invited into a veteran firefighter’s memory.
Mark Ostrander, 56 in 10 days, and his wife, Lorrie, live on remote acreage in Jacumba, up in the high desert east of Pine Valley. He’s big, rawboned and ruddy. When he smiles, he has a reason. When he visits the city, he doesn’t hang around.
Two years ago, Ostrander removed his fire hat, hung up his ax and filed retirement papers as battalion chief of the Campo Battalion of Cal Fire. That’s the state agency that stands between Californians and backcountry fires, which lie patiently awaiting the spark that will set them free to kill and destroy.
However, there’s more to what fire departments do than fires, and it sometimes gets even worse. The public often doesn’t know all they respond to: the auto accidents, the tragedy that guns can cause, and well, the dangers of everyday living that pull firefighters into the maelstrom of human suffering. They are first-responders to myriad risks.
Ostrander left it all behind, except what was in his head after 36 years on the line. Those memories had nowhere else to go.
It’s said that the mind protects its sanity by retaining good memories and pushing the bad into the subconscious. That may be true in general, but it surely depends on how graphic and stark those bad memories are.
For Ostrander, it’s a matter of perspective. He looks back with satisfaction on the lives and property his firefighters preserved, and the bond that developed in working elbow-to-elbow at a dirty, exhausting and dangerous job. But that fellowship was cemented by trauma that bends the mind and draws people close. Ostrander thinks the public needs to know just how tough it can get.
Which makes me think: Some truths make us smile, and some make us frown. But if the frowns make us more aware, more thoughtful of the service others do for our benefit, and sometimes to their own detriment, then we honor what they do by listening and saying, “I understand.”
Ostrander talks of a day he rolled out in the morning with two fresh recruits. It was back in the ’90s, but it could have been any day in any decade. The first call was to a home in Campo where a baby was reported as a SIDS victim. That’s the chilling acronym for sudden infant death syndrome. The crew stood around the crib with nothing to be done, attempted to comfort the weeping parents and thought of their own children as they awaited the medical examiner. It seemed a very long time.
The second call, an hour later, was about a young boy who had ridden his small dirt bike onto state Route 94 and into the path of a speeding car. Again, there was nothing to be done except stare at the wide swath of blood and wait. Later, the body was placed in the firehouse to await the coroner, and Ostrander watched the recruits stand outside, unwilling to go in.
That afternoon, same day, they were called to a hunting site where two men had engaged in an argument that spiked into violence, and one was shot dead. They watched a young boy weeping as his father was handcuffed to a squad car with a dead body nearby.
“All this in one day for two new firefighters,” Ostrander says, shaking his head. “We all went back, and they went through the mandatory counseling sessions with the psychologists, and it’s not helping at all. Within a week or so, the two new men up and quit.
“I talked to one of them several years later, and that day still bugged him. It was a horrible day in his life that had never been dealt with.”
Ostrander says the memories of burn fatalities have always buried themselves most deeply into his mind. “Those are the worst. To me, it’s because of the smell, and the (olfactory memory) triggers you back to the incidents. Once, when I was doing a secondary search, I ended up on top of a burned body. After that, every time I would find a burned body, that smell would come back, regardless of whether it was present or not.
“For a long time I couldn’t eat fried chicken because the look of it reminded me of that. Things like that stay with you. They’ll never go away. I sometimes dream about them. It’s not like I get upset, because I’ve learned to handle those things, but it comes back. You just have to make friends with it and deal with it.”
The occasional horror of the job is a secret that can only be shared between members of that fellowship, he says. “The best way we face it is firefighter to firefighter. We’re the only ones who can understand it. Sometimes dark humor helps. When you let those feelings out, you have to know the person you’re talking to will understand and you can trust. They are like family.”
He says stress counseling employing outside counselors is an idea better in the intention than the result. “We had these outside psychologists come in; they could not understand. It just caused more harm to some firefighters, because they just closed up more, because they just could not relate to outsiders who hadn’t been there.
“It takes a huge toll, handling emergencies, and if a person can’t deal with it, he’ll be a basket case in 10 years. He’ll learn to hate the job.”
On a fire line, danger rarely warns of its intentions. In April 1996, Ostrander and six crew members were fighting a small fire of 100 acres in the Otay mountains between Route 94 and the border. Abruptly, the fire “flared up and made a run” and trapped the firefighters.
“All of a sudden I heard the fire coming; it sounded like a freight train. We thought we were going to die. I actually had crew members, grown men, break down and cry,” Ostrander remembers. He ordered the crew to break out their fire shelters, an aluminized tent that reflects heat as much as possible. “If you have to use that, you’re in a very bad situation,” he says.
Fortunately, a helicopter pilot spotted their peril and dropped water near them, and the crew cut a path to safety. They walked out to the surprise of their mates whose thoughts were on body bags. But they were not the same men who had started the day. After that experience, three resigned.
Ostrander says of the experiences that consumed much of his life: “It’s like being a soldier. Nobody knows what a soldier goes through unless you’ve been a soldier. ... But since we do it for the public, the public needs to know.”
The next time you see a firefighter, either in the city or the backcountry, he or she may smile at you, but you can be certain there are times when the memories surface and the smile fades.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected].
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