I had the pleasure the other day of spending quite a while chatting with an experienced local volunteer firefighter.

A self-proclaimed “first entry junkie,” the man not only holds down a full time “real” job, but helps douse blazes with no fewer than three of Texas County’s dozen fire departments. Listening to him describe some of what he’s seen and done while wearing firefighter gear put me in a very reflective frame of mind.

As I’ve written a time or two before, I can’t help but marvel at the sheer drama that is potentially involved – and sometimes fully manifested – in each and every call that comes in to a fire station. Folks, this is not a game, it’s not for the faint of heart, and I, for one, am glad there are guys like the man I spoke with who are willing to put their well-being on the line in the name of trying to save someone’s home, business, or even life.

And the part that always gets me is they do it voluntarily. Their compensation basically amounts to nothing other than the satisfaction of helping a neighbor.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

But again, it’s what’s involved in getting that satisfaction that really makes me think. It can at times mean crawling into a smoke-filled, zero-visibility situation where you really don’t know if the surface under you knees is going to bear your weight, or crumble into a charred pile. It can mean wondering if the next move you make is the one that will trigger a storm of flame to surround you and your partner.

And it often means diving headlong into a battle in which the odds are heavily stacked in favor of the enemy.

But then, it can also mean a preventing a person or family from losing everything, and therein lies the motivation.

The man I was talking with the other day told me a story about a fire he worked early in 2012 that ended in a house being entirely converted to ash. I witnessed and photographed the blaze, and I clearly recall that there was a significant amount of surprise among the responders as to why the dang fire kept growing despite all manner of effort by a whole bunch of well-equipped and well-trained men. The man described how he and a cohort had gone into the basement and were spraying hundreds of gallons of water on an area that appeared to be a hot spot, but as they did, the temperature kept rising anyway.

“I knew something wasn’t right,” he said. “It finally got to a point where I said, ‘let’s get out – now!’”

As I stood in amazement, the intense heat that had built up inside the home caused windows to begin popping out one at a time, and what had mostly been sort of an invisible, smoke-only conflagration turned into a gigantic mass of swirling, dancing flame. The men finally reluctantly backed away and did the only thing left to do: watch a fire consume a house.

The firefighter told me he later found out that the basement he and his partner had so vigorously watered contained a large amount of firewood, which had obviously been clandestinely fueling the hungry fire they were simultaneously trying to stop.

“Sounds like it was a good thing you got out when you did,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

Yeah indeed. With the stacks of dry firewood acting as a catalyst, the blaze was destined to stay ahead of the men’s efforts no matter what they did with their hose. Another minute in the basement and they might have been swarmed by super-heated air and fire.

Imagine being in that kind of environment. And doing it on purpose. And voluntarily.

Wow. That’s either the bravest thing I’ve ever heard of, or the craziest. Or maybe both.

Either way, it’s awesome in a literal sense, and I’m thankful to no end that there are guys like that out there, especially the first-entry junkie kind who are basically willing to be live crash-test dummies and stick their noses right in the face of danger.

All I can do is keep my camera handy and try to document the efforts of volunteer firefighters in a way that spreads at least a little appreciation for what they do. I understand that even if four trucks and 11 men show up, the nature of the beast is that some homes will still burn to a crisp. But others won’t, and a true sense of accomplishment will reign amongst the high-fives and atta-boys.

But whatever the outcome of a call and a response, I also understand that the men who show up in the red trucks are doing one heck of a service for the rest of us.

Keep up the good work guys, and I’ll be thankful for your willingness to do what most people wouldn’t every time I hear a page on the scanner, whether it’s for a structure fire or a training session.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email:  ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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