How I Found Comfort in Volunteer Firefighting

My daughter, Floriane, died in April 2015 at the age of 9. We had no idea she was anything other than perfectly healthy; in reality, she had a heart defect whose first outward symptom was sudden cardiac arrest. One evening we were playing together, and she collapsed. I tried to resuscitate her but did not succeed.

In the months following Floriane’s death, unable to do very much else, I took up bicycling for the first time since high school. My usual route took me from my home in suburban Sydney to my daughter’s grave site, and it happened to take me past the station of a volunteer bushfire brigade. My curiosity piqued, I went home and searched for them online. Among the first things I discovered was that the brigade had received a citation on the most recent St. Florian’s Day, the day that many countries, including Australia, commemorate the work of firefighters. The connection between the holiday and Floriane’s name was an astonishing — and to me, meaningful — coincidence. I’m not one for signs, but it seemed like one anyway.

I was deep into magical thinking at that point, only a few months after my phone’s autocorrect feature had begun to suggest words like “funeral” and “casket” rather than “school” and “friends” following my daughter’s name. I called the brigade captain, and six weeks later I had passed the initial training and found myself dressed in bright yellow protective gear, a helmet, mask and goggles, working on my first fire. Almost anyone with average fitness and some mechanical aptitude would have qualified. Four years later, I had more experience and training and was able to work on the big fires during the antipodean summer of 2019-20.

Bush firefighting is not complicated. In general, a fire starts at a single point. Many of the fires that summer were started by lightning strikes, but the spark can just as well be faulty electrical equipment, a cigarette or a kid playing with a lighter and an aerosol can. The fire spreads from its point of ignition outward, irregularly, subject to the wind and the contours of the land. A fire that starts in a remote area can get very large, very fast. Our job as bush firefighters is to get in front of it and stop its spread. A lot of the time, firefighting involves five or six people in a truck rolling up to a threatened area, dragging canvas hoses through sclerophyll forest and hosing down an advancing edge.

Firefighting turned out to be part of what I needed to help process my grief and trauma. Look at this, I thought. This is what it’s like in my brain. The entire world, as far as I can see, is literally on fire. Giant trees have become fireballs, and there’s a firefront that sounds like a train as it moves through the canopy. Snakes and scorpions, fleeing the fire, traverse my boots. It’s loud; the air is hot; everyone is tired and hungry. A raging bushfire is the best metaphor I’ve yet found for something I have not been able to express.

Time on the fireline is time not spent contemplating misfortune. My grief is ever-present, but the sense of loss is less acute. I think there is comfort in embracing external chaos, taking it on and taming it. I cannot bring Floriane back, but I can protect a house, a barn or a flock of sheep.

And it’s not some obscure hobby, something only reserved for the few: Volunteers make up about 70 percent of the personnel of fire departments in the United States and approximately 54 percent of its active firefighters. They’re also not a rural phenomenon: Nine volunteer companies respond to calls within the five boroughs of New York City. There’s often a unit within a short distance of almost everywhere. Most units require an interview, followed by some initial training that covers safety and basic procedures, after which a new firefighter can work under supervision. From there, the amount of additional training is usually proportional to the volunteer’s commitment — people who show up often tend to get more training. Living as we do on a warming, drying planet with increasingly extreme weather, volunteering offers a way of being tangibly useful, of doing something besides feeling utterly powerless. The parties tend to be pretty good, too.

Bereavement is a state of being, like having a chronic illness or a haunting past that can’t be overcome. It becomes part of you and must be dealt with. I’ve learned that the process is different for everyone and there’s no magic formula for learning to get on with life — even Floriane would say I have other things to get on with, including the raising of her brother. Firefighting is not unlike being a parent in some ways. People call us with problems they can’t solve, which is to say there’s a wall of flame coming toward their house or a giant tree has come down on their roof in a storm. The problems then become ours, and we do our best to take care of them. Sometimes we try and fail. But what I’ve come to learn is that it is better to have stood up for a community, for a child, than to have stood by and done nothing at all.

David Wall lives in Sydney, Australia, with his family. 

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