Of Books and Burns

Friends,

As I’ve previously written posts about my favorite books on topics as diverse as the Old West and the great works of Russian Literature, I thought I would turn my attention to another subject near and dear to my heart; the fire service. Novels about firefighting are not all that common, and indeed, only one makes my list here. Part of it is because the job isn’t simply rushing from one emergency to the next, which does make for exciting reading. For a novel to be realistic, it would have to cover training time, meals, and sleeping. Hardly compelling stuff. Furthermore, raging structure fires are not as common as they once were, and professional firefighters today spend more time running EMS calls than they do putting out fires. So the books that follow are mostly non-fiction memoir type books, with the exception mentioned above. These are not technical books about the job, but rather books about either the history of the fire service or the experiences of someone in it.

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The Bronx was burning before I was born. The men of Engine Company 82 fought a never ending battle against the red devil, responding to numerous fires each shift. Dennis Smith, a firefighter on Engine 82 also happened to be a talented wordsmith. His memoir, Report From Engine Co. 82 is a firefighting classic. Imagine if, rather than writing about World War One, Remarque wrote about life at what was, at the time, one of the busiest engine companies in the world. And that’s what this book is like. It is, perhaps, the greatest of all the firefighting memoirs and rises to the level of true literature. Smith wrote many books, including a novel called A Song For Mary which tells his story before he joined the fire department. He has also made contributions to fire service history. His History of Firefighting in America is an excellent, if somewhat hard to find these days, book. Recently, he penned a great book on the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. But Report rises to the top of the crowded field of fire department memoirs.

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In graduate school, my research focused on the German Civil Defense system during World War Two.  I had the opportunity to interview German firefighters who worked during the firebombing raids from 1943-45. This ignited, pardon the pun, in me a lifelong interest in how fire departments cope with the strain of wartime conditions when they find themselves on the front lines. Burning Issues is a unique account because it describes the activities of the Belfast Fire Brigade during the early years of The Troubles. No other fire service in Europe or America has had to cope with what the Fire Service of Northern Ireland has. For thirty years, terrorism tore their relatively small country apart. As part of the establishment, the fire brigade tried to stay above the sectarian issues which divided the country, and responded to calls from both communities. The author does an excellent job writing about what it was like working in that kind of environment. This is a tough book to get a copy of now, but if you can find one, buy it.

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Larry Brown was a retired firefighter turned novelist from Oxford, Mississippi. His non-fiction book On Fire is a short but very interesting account of his time as a firefighter. It consists of a series of short vignettes which move from the humorous to the tragic, a fact which I think all of us current or retired firefighters can relate to. With a novelist’s skill, he tells stories which induce laughter and/or tears. Reading this book is rather like sitting around a campfire and listening to the author tell stories. It’s personal and engaging. Sadly, the author passed away several years ago, but he has left us with a great account of firefighting in the Deep South in the 70s and 80s. I’m sure William Faulkner would approve of this book.

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If you are in the market for a more scholarly look at the development of the American Fire Service, look no further than Crucible of Fire. The author describes some of the great conflagrations of the 19th Century and explores how they impacted fire departments of the 20th Century. It’s about lessons learned and applied. As such, it might not appeal to the general reader, though firefighters, historians, or both will find much to like about it. Firefighting in the United States is long on tradition unimpeded by progress, so sometimes it is nice to see where some of those traditions came from. Fire departments are made up of humans, and as such, we tend to learn from our mistakes, thus finding things out “the hard way”. This book is a great read for young firefighters, who I think need to know some of our shared history, no matter how boring it might seem to them. The fundamental goal of firefighting, putting the wet stuff on the red stuff, has never changed, even though our apparatus and gear has.

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3000 Degrees is the best book written on a single fire and the men who fought it. The author tells the tragic story of the 6 firefighters killed in the Worcester Cold Storage Fire in December of 1999. I was a young firefighter in Texas at the time, and I remember watching the news coverage of this fire. What the author does particularly well, is introduce you to the lives of the six men, so that when the unfortunate events occur, you can really feel the loss suffered by their families. It’s far more than just the story of a fire, it is an ode to those who answer the alarms, even knowing the risks they face. Not a terribly long read, it can be easily digested. It is also available as an Audiobook with an excellent narrator, so if that is more your cup of tea, you can enjoy it that way.

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My final book is the only work of fiction on the list. Chicago 1871 is both a science fiction novel and a historical one. The science fiction angle comes from the fact that the protagonist travels back in time to Chicago on the eve of the Great Fire. While I actually don’t much care for time travel books, this one is the exception. Once we arrive in the past, the author does an incredible job painting a portrait of the Chicago Fire Department in the 19th Century. The information about how they lived and fought fires is well researched enough to be like reading entertaining non-fiction. The action scenes are very well done, and you can almost taste the smoke. I’m a first generation firefighter, and my son has no desire to enter the profession and so I’ll be the only generation, and I have no personal connection with the firefighters of old, other than a shared job. Sometimes, the book made me wish I had worked back then instead of when I did. But to work back then, I’d have to live back then, and I rather like having access to antibiotics. There aren’t many firefighting novels out there, but this one is the best I’ve read. Feel free to check out the author’s page here.

So there you have it, Dear Readers. Hopefully you’ll check out some of these books and find them as interesting as I did. Being a firefighter is the toughest job you’ll ever love. My years on the job made me the person I am today, for better or worse. Until next time, enjoy your holidays and I’ll see you at the big one.

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L.H.

 

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