Fire from Heaven

"And there appeared to them tongues as of fire..." The Acts of the Apostles 2:3

"And there appeared to them tongues as of fire..." The Acts of the Apostles 2:3

Fire fascinates — because it is raw power, because it is as old as the universe, because humankind has long identified it as the medium of the gods. Moses had a hot line to Him through the burning bush. Jesus’ apostles spoke with “tongues of fire.” Agni, the Hindu fire god, was an intermediary between men and the gods. Prometheus gave humanity a little piece of heaven in the form of a spark.

So there’s something holy, something primal about the men and women who engage the fire gods in their wild playgrounds, away from the neat order of hydrants on subdivided streets. Accurately or not, an image has grown up around (or been cultivated by) wild-land firefighters — part Green Beret, part eco-warrior, part adrenaline junkie, rushing (and sometimes parachuting) into blazes that rival the power of atomic bombs, knowing all the while that burning to death is one of the worst ways to go. These firefighters aren’t pulling kitties out of trees; they’re saving ancient sequoias and million-dollar retirement homes.

It’s the stuff that sells magazines like Outside and Men’s Journal. Two recent books by full-time firefighters explore the more religious and philosophical territory of the job, and they are a refreshing departure from the usual extreme-whatever machismo of wildfire lit and lore.

In Ghosts of the Fireground (HarperSanFrancisco), Peter Leschak sets himself a full plate of interrelated topics. The dust jacket sells the book in part as a history of a Wisconsin wildfire in 1871 that killed more than 1,200 people (as usual, carnage is the ultimate marketing tool), filtered through the author’s modern-day experience and expertise in fiery battle. Relying on the account of a Catholic priest who survived the fire, Leschak brings to life the horror of being trapped in the logging town of Peshtigo as it burned, relating in forensic detail what he’s memorized from fire-survival courses. He describes a moment when the priest saw a man burst into flame at the edge of a river, where townsfolk were seeking safety: “If his clothing had ignited from radiant heat, it indicates a temperature of 375 to 600 degrees…. During fire shelter training, students are advised to breathe through the mouth, since nasal inhalation becomes uncomfortable around 220 degrees and oral at 280. For perspective, consider that book paper ignites at 451 degrees.”

But there’s more to Ghosts than fetishistic accounts of death by fire — Leschak doesn’t really get to the meat of the Peshtigo story until nearly 130 pages in. The choice of a priest as his central point of entry into the past may not be coincidental: The book’s subtitle refers to wildfire fighting as a “calling,” and the author recounts how becoming a firefighter was a salvation — from, well, salvation.

As a teenager in northern Minnesota, Leschak renounced his parents’ Catholicism in favor of the more conservative, fundamentalist brand of Christianity he encountered listening to apocalyptic sermons on a Duluth radio station. He enrolled in seminary in Texas and earned a theology degree, but he left the school an agnostic, disillusioned by his teachers’ and peers’ unwillingness to entertain challenges to dogma. Several years later, married and working at a sewage facility back in Minnesota, he enlisted with the local volunteer fire department, almost on impulse. He found what amounts to a new religion fighting fire, one influenced by Christian notions of suffering.

“Ordeal is a powerful lure,” Leschak writes. “Wildland firefighting is a path to pain and not to a fat stock portfolio. There is mystery here — the romantic attraction of hardship and hazard amid a corpulent society obsessed with mammon. I understand the flinty joy of acknowledging that I’d better serve and be served by my congregation (crew), because the world (fire) doesn’t care about me at all, at all. I accepted the Assignment because of the welcome danger but also for the same reason I once matriculated at a Bible school — to be a minister in a church. To scratch a line to salvation. To grasp the hot iron.”

It’s in these passages, scattered throughout the book, that Leschak really soars with inspiration — and far surpasses the usual outdoor-adventure fare. To be near fire is to be close to peers on the fire line, to pain, to the power of nature, and to death. It’s being close to God.

Strangely, Leschak’s prose flags most often when he details the various sorties of his fire crew — the very stuff firefighter fans expect of a book like this. Sure, there’s excitement here, fit for the pages of Outside. He describes narrow escapes from walls of fire and touchy helicopter landings pregnant with the very real possibility of someone being dismembered by the chopper’s rotors. Some of this material is fleshed out with flashbacks to legendary fires, when firefighters miraculously cheated death, or made a mistake and died horribly. Leschak usually steers clear of the obnoxious chest-thumping of this genre — in fact, he’s often self-deprecating — but some of this material doesn’t gel as well as his more contemplative moments.

You’ll find even less chest-thumping in The Seasons of Fire (University of Nevada Press), David Strohmaier’s exploration of the philosophical, ethical, and spiritual facets of our fascination with flame. His musings are the sort Henry David Thoreau might have written if he had watched Walden woods burn down — or torched the place himself.

Per the title, the book progresses through the seasons of a year, addressing the role of fire — from tiny campfires to roaring forest conflagrations — in each. Strohmaier tends to raise more questions than he answers. For example, he meditates on the role of prescribed burning in the spring, which will rejuvenate some wildlife and endanger others; burning is done in the spring because it’s easier to control the flames and thus protect those million-dollar homes encroaching on wildfire territory. He wonders whether humans should have such a self-interested role in the fire cycle: “These are matters of science, and they are also matters of philosophy: What is the value of landscapes or configurations of plant species? Is nature’s fire qualitatively, or only quantitatively, different from that unleashed by a human hand? Are human ends the only ones of ultimate importance in all of this? Scientific and philosophical, yes. Possibly even religious.”

The book is periodically sidetracked by this sort of meandering deep-think, of interest primarily to firefighters, arsonists, and others who spend an inordinate amount of time pondering fire. And those pyrophiles better be well-read; Strohmaier flaunts his Ivy League education with transitions such as, “For all his obscurity, I think Heraclitus of Ephesus was on to something.” Where Leschak’s reader may wish the author allowed himself more time in philosophical mode, one longs while perusing The Seasons of Fire for a thrilling passage about smokejumping, the art of skydiving into a fire zone.

But some of Strohmaier’s passages are elegantly rendered, and he admirably attempts to figure out what we love so much about watching fire in the hearth — or even in an approaching firestorm. Fire is a “happening,” he says — a moment of transformation that will never be repeated and cannot be reversed. He describes a time when, during a 1994 wildfire, two firefighters were nearly killed when they stopped to snap a picture of their colleagues, who were overwhelmed by a fire in a canyon. The firefighters in the picture were eventually killed. “Surely, trying to capture a fellow firefighter against the pumpkin-orange glow of thick smoke and flame may be a way to brag about one’s manliness,” Strohmaier writes. “It may also stem from the desire to immortalize the experience of being present to hidden powers in nature becoming explicit.”

Scott Carlson is a writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education and a regular contributor to his hometown alt-weekly, Baltimore City Paper, where this review first appeared.