The letters appeared on my helmet a week after my 18th birthday. I noticed on the way to a call, as I toed off my sneakers and stepped into my bunker gear pants, stomping to get my feet all the way down into my rubber fire boots and slipping on my jacket. I stopped for a second and stared at my helmet. The carefully applied black plastic letters that spelled out my last name had been removed. In their place were two words: WRONG TURN.
“Who messed with my gear?” I yelled. No one looked up, busying themselves with putting on their turnouts. My Captain paused beside me. He dropped his cigarette on the apron and ground it out with the toe of his boot. “Get in the rig.”
I sat in the back seat of the engine, my face burning with humiliation. I knew why they’d changed the lettering on my helmet. I was the newest member of a small close-knit volunteer Fire Department, but I thought I’d been on my way to proving myself to the other firefighters. Until last week. On the way to a medical call, I’d read the map wrong and my ambulance had ended up at a dead-end across a ravine from our intended address. Luckily, the other ambulance en route didn’t follow us, and the patient suffered no harm. We could literally see the house and the other ambulance across the ravine, but in order to get to it, we’d had to retrace our steps, going all the way back to the main road.
“Hey, Wrong Turn. Wrong Turn!” One of the other young firefighters, just a year or two older than me elbowed me to get my attention. “You took a wrong turn in the ambulance. Hey, maybe joining the fire department was a wrong turn too!” He smirked at his own cleverness.
As soon as we returned to the station, I started picking at the lettering. I could hear all of the other firefighters laughing about something in the break room, and I walked outside the station, holding the helmet in my hands. It would take less than five minutes to get the letters peeled off, and I was certain I’d rather have no name on my helmet than wear an embarrassing reminder of my mistake everywhere I went.
The Captain walked over and stood beside me, looking outside at the gathering dark outside the station. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and tapped one out. “Never take up smoking,” he said. “Filthy habit.” He glanced over as he lit up. “You’re peeling them off?”
“Yeah,” I said defensively.
“Don’t blame you. That was just plain mean, doing that to you.” He took a long drag on the cigarette and blew the smoke out. “At least, you can choose to take it that way.”
I stopped picking. “What do you mean?”
“We depend on each other much more than people in other professions. Building bonds, building trust means something more to us than most people. Because I have to depend on you to be there for me in a life-or-death situation. Some people would say that they’re teasing you as part of making friends with you. You screwed up last week. So what? We all do. They’re all waiting to see if you can handle a little teasing, because like it or not, they have to trust you to save their rumps, and they want to know what kind of person you are.”
“So, you’re saying I shouldn’t peel off the letters?”
“I’m not saying anything.” He took another long draw of his cigarette, and went back inside.
I thought about it for a few minutes, then carefully pressed the letters back down in place.
The next evening was our weekly training, and it seemed like everyone there had to make a joke about my helmet. Even our Chief got in on it, telling everyone that ‘Firefighter Wrong Turn’ would be in charge of cataloging the map binders – as long as she could find them. I had to retell the story of the mishap a dozen times. It was embarrassing, but it was also fun, as the other firefighters recounted their own past mistakes. The letters stayed in place on my helmet for another six months. By the time they disappeared, I was no longer an outsider at the Fire Department, but truly part of the family, and I’d learned that the way to succeed as a firefighter was as part of a team, rather than in spite of the team. For a hot-headed teenager, it was an important lesson to learn.
“No more Wrong Turn?” My Captain glanced at my helmet.
“Nope.” I turned the helmet over in my hands. Whoever had removed the lettering had also cleaned the gummy residue away before carefully reapplying my name. “I kind of miss it.”
“You got off easy,” he said with a chuckle. “I was ‘Light Bar’ for a full year.”
The Big Picture, which weekly collects photos from journalists worldwide gathered around a theme has several times covered wildland fire. One particularly remarkable set of photos chronicles the wildfires sweeping California during the fall of 2008. It includes moving photos of the devastation at the Oakridge mobile home park in Sylmar as well as great photos of the firefighters and firefighting planes in action.
The Big Picture collects some of the best photos available around a weekly theme. Several times over the last couple of years they have featured vivid wildland fire photos. One of these sets, posted in September of 2009, included incredible photos of ongoing California fires, including unbelievable satellite imagery of the smoke plume captured by NASA.
The Black Dragon fire ignited in May of 1987 in China. Driven by parched conditions and high winds, the wildfire devoured land along both sides of the Amur river, blazing along the Sino-Soviet frontier. The Chinese mobilized two armies of regular troops and thousands of forestry workers to fight the blaze, according to the New York Times. Lacking sophisticated suppression tools, most of the 60,000 Chinese fighting the fire were armed with beaters. May 7th and 8th saw the worst days of the Black Dragon fire, as 200 in the path of the blaze perished and 250 were injured. By the end of the fire siege, 3 million acres of forest land had burned in China, totaling 1/3 of the Black Dragon forest reserve.
The Russian government opted to allow the wildfire to burn unchecked on their side of the border. Though in total the fire burned some 15 million acres of Russian timber, the Russian government predicted that they would not harvest in that area for at least a century, which would allow the forest ample time to regrow.
The wildfire was only finally contained in June, after extreme wind conditions subsided. In all, 18 million acres of forested land were charred in the fire.
Photo credit: Rachel C. Smith 2004 All rights reserved