Firefighting Part 1

I was a firefighter many years ago, I held a seasonal position with the Division of Forestry.  I was stationed in the mountains and assigned to an Engine Company. I worked two fire seasons from approximately May until November in each year. I enjoyed the work and I enjoyed the companionship and camaraderie of the firehouse. Firefighters are good, hardworking people and I enjoyed my time among them.

Thirty years ago we worked five days on with two days off. If I came on duty at 6:30 AM on Saturday morning I got off duty at 6:30 on Thursday morning. When the fire danger was high we went on what they called “Pattern C” which meant that all days off were Cancelled.  I didn’t get a day off in August for two years.  We were paid $800 per month plus room and board when we were on duty.  As an 18 year old, I thought this was a grand amount of money, especially given only two days off in which to spend it.

We had to buy our own uniforms and boots back then.  The boots were pricey as I recall.  I remember that a good pair of Red Wings for firefighters, steel toes and insulated, cost $125. I did manage to get two years of wear out of one pair of boots. Not bad considering the abuse they suffered on the fire line and the time I missed a log with a sharp axe and lodged it in the tip of my boot.

I loved those boots, they were a symbol of my macho firefighter status. They had thick soles and a raised heel so I was taller when wearing them. They laced up high above my ankle with thick round yellow laces that I became deft at lacing up in the middle of the night when the alarm went off. Ash is acidic so caring for the leather was a constant job and after each fire my boots had to be cleaned and rubbed with mink oil to keep them waterproof.

Red Wings have a leather insert that laces into the front of the boot. This insert has an arrogant little flap that protrudes forward with a serrated edge at the base of the laces and lays forward onto the base of the boot toe. I don’t know why but I always thought this feature added a bit of style to the boot and announced to the world that these boots were Red Wings. I think the flap served the practical purpose of adding protection to keep sticks and things from lodging into the laces: I liked its arrogance.

I recall that the steel toe saved my feet a few times when something heavy would drop on my foot. The insulation would keep my feet warm instead of hot when walking in a coal bed by accident. I do recall my smoking boots had to be hosed down a few times. I haven’t owned a pair of Red Wings since I quit fighting fires but if I ever decide to go back the Red Wing store will be my first stop.

I was assigned to a two engine firehouse. The station property was probably about three acres. It had a four bay garage for the two engines and the Ranger’s pickup truck. On one end of the garage was the station office where the captain on duty had a desk and the Ranger had a private office. The radio and maps and baby food jars full of rattlesnake rattles that the Ranger collected were all in there. We firefighters didn’t go in there much, it was for “the brass”.

The barracks was a long narrow building divided into a dorm with about sixteen beds, eight on each wall with a walkway down the center. Each pair of beds was divided by small bedside tables and a row of windows chest high above the beds were hung with white venetian blinds. The beds were steel framed with a sqeaky spring foundation on which sat a mattress. The bed was supported by inverted tubular U-shaped ends that connected to side rails which hooked into the ends with metal hooks. The whole bed could be disassembled in minutes. Each bed had white sheets and a gray wool blanket neatly tucked with hospital corners. The walls were greenish and the floors were heavily waxed and polished. At the end of the barracks was a clean bathroom with sinks, urinals, toilets in stalls and several showers.  A washer and dryer occupied one end of the bathroom.

Next to the barracks was a lounge with comfortable old couches and chairs and a television set. Beside the lounge and at the end of the barracks opposite the dorm was a large kitchen and dining room with a long table and a dozen or so chairs. The coffee pot was on constantly or there was hell to pay for whoever had kitchen duty if it ran out.  There was a cook’s quarters like a small apartment in the farthest corner of the building from the dorm that was access through a back door that exited out the rear of the kitchen. This apartment was the vestige of better budget years when a cook was employed, now “Peaches” lived in there who I’ll get to later. 

The only other building on the property was a small fuel house, it was a small shack that provided shelter from the elements for the fuel pump. It was our own private gas station. We would measure the level of gasoline in the underground tank by unscrewing the brass cover and dropping a wooden measuring stick on a string into the tank and drawing it back up again.

The crew at our station consisted of the Ranger who was the boss, two captains, three engineers and about a eight firefighters, one a female. This was unusual back in 1977 and she had to put up with a lot of harassment from the guys. Her main handicap as a female firefighter aside from all of the males she had to deal with was the fact that she had so little upper body strength. Firefighting requires some arm and shoulder strength and “Peaches” had almost none of either. She got nicknamed “Peaches” by a high ranking Ranger who administered our Ranger District. This guy was an ancient, crusty firefighter originally from somewhere in the South who brought a full complement of old southern prejudices west with him. He had a rich southern drawl and his speech was laced with obscenities. He didn’t approve of female firefighters. He’d greet her in his best confederate-eeze was, “How ya doin’ ….Peaches?” Now the drawl doesn’t exactly work well in written English but just put on a NASCAR cap and pop open a Bud Light, you’ll soon work it out.

To be continued…