C5 Eyes In The Flame
There are technically four firehouses in Ukiah, but only two are staffed full time. Even only running two, we are constantly short staffed, and rely heavily on volunteers to keep our department going, which is why it's not surprising to get called in on a day off. What's surprising is the time of year. This isn't fire season, but that doesn't mean fires don't happen.
I primarily work the South Station, which I prefer. The North is more plush. It's a house with a kitchen and living room: big screen television, bedrooms and a real home feel. The running joke is that it's Club North. The South Station is where all the personnel offices are located, so it's not just the two to three firefighters on duty, but also the fire chief and everyone else. It's more political, but you also get to know more about what's going on. I like being in the know.
However, on weekends, the South Station feels empty, cold, and sterile. It doesn’t have the home-like feel of the North Station, which I don't like. But today there's a larger group than normal when I arrive, as everyone prepares to assist on this fire.
Blake arrives at the same time as me and frowns when he sees me. "How's the head?"
"Hard as ever," I say, smiling through the headache I still have.
"I'll take a look at it later," he says as we enter the garage. "Make sure it's healing."
Blake, with his dark hair, blue eyes, and aristocratic features, is more like a movie star firefighter than a real life one. When we went through training together, he was worried his sexuality would be an issue at the station. You work so closely with your crew, sleeping and living together three or more days a week, covering for each other, protecting each other on the job. We both quickly saw that as long as he did his job—and Blake is an amazing paramedic and firefighter—he'd be treated with the same dark humor and respect everyone else is. That is to say, he gets teased as much as anyone. No one cares that he's gay. But he gets ribbed a lot for his excessive use of hair gel.
It was always Blake's dream to be a firefighter. For me, it was a way out of the life I'm stuck in. A way to help others and a way to do good. But also, it's a way to stay close to Blake, to the only adult family I really have. Our crew is a second family for me, and one that treats me a lot better than my real family. And... there's something about the fire that has always called to me. It draws me in. It's a living, breathing thing that must consume in order to live. Fire has always fascinated me. The secret truth is, you won't find a firefighter anywhere who isn't at least a little bit of a pyromaniac too. The love of fire seduced us to this job, not the desire to kill it.
I head to my locker to grab my gear. Steve sees me first and laughs. "Well, folks. Dragon Girl is here. So today should be eventful."
I roll my eyes at him. "Don't be stupid, Steve."
Steve's been in the department a long time and is a staple here, which is why he gets so much support from the chief when his kids interfere with his shifts. He swings an arm over my shoulder and squeezes. "Everyone loves being on shift when you're here, DG. What firefighter doesn't want a good fire now and then? Especially this time of year."
"I think tales of my fire-attracting nature are highly exaggerated," I say.
The chief walks over to us and smiles. "Actually, I ran the numbers on a lark. Statistically we have 60% more fire calls when you're working."
My jaw drops. "You ran the numbers? That can't be true. That's impossible."
We get called out for just about anything. Car accidents, support for paramedics, support for police... you name it, we're there. But fires are what we all live for. It's kind of messed up, when you think about it. Any of us who work in emergency response basically depend on tragedy to strike for us to practice our skills and do our jobs. We don't wish for bad stuff to happen, not really. We just hope that if it's going to happen, it happens on our watch. There's nothing worse than a firefighter who's gone too long without fighting a fire. We start to get bitchy and restless.
But there will be no rest today.
I pull on my pants and boots, then my jacket and climb into the fire engine. Connected to the back of my seat is a tank—a Self Contained Breathing Apparatus—that I'll strap on as we drive, so I'm ready to roll the moment we get to our destination.
I'm sitting in the back, with Blake—who's our engineer—driving, and Steve navigating. Once we get there, Steve will call the shots. Blake will work the engine. I'll assess and be ready to respond.
But we'll have to wait for the North Station to arrive before we can go in. There needs to be four firefighters present at all times, two to enter the building, two to stay outside.
My heart pounds against my ribs as the sirens blare into traffic, clearing our way. We get as much information as we can before we arrive at an apartment complex on North State Street. The building is four stories tall. Possible casualties.
When we arrive, there's no visible fire, but we can see smoke pouring out of a corner window. When you work an area like Ukiah you have to get to know the buildings, houses, structures, so you know what to look for when tragedy strikes.
This building has four units on each floor, for a total of sixteen. We need to isolate the unit that's at risk and protect the others, plus make sure the whole structure has been evacuated. The rain has completely subsided, and the day has turned warm and sunny—not an advantage for us.
Fires are living things. They hunt. They feed. They move through space with intention. A good firefighter understands the fire. Respects the fire, even. And learns to anticipate the fire's next move.
"Time to fight the dragon," Steve says to us, a gleam of that familiar excitement I know we all have reflecting in his eyes.
We share a smile, then get busy. Blake works the engine, getting the hose ready, while I walk the periphery to assess any risks. I've determined the point of origin and am about to holler to Steve, when something catches my eye. A man lurks in the shadows near the building. He's dressed in black and I can't see his face. "Sir, I need you to come with me," I yell.
He doesn't respond.
I run forward. "Sir—"
He steps back. Into the shadows. And he's gone.
Dark smoke hangs in the air. The fire’s spreading.
I walk forward, searching for the man, but finding nothing.
Then I hear a scream on the second floor. It sounds like a young girl.
"Steve! We've got a child in the building. I'm going in."
This is risky. And dangerous. And the only time we're allowed to break the rules and go in before there are four firefighters present.
I know Steve will join me soon, but I don't wait. I can't. There's a girl up there, and I need to get her out. With ax in hand I push through a door and take the most direct path to get to the second floor. The mission is simple and direct. Get the girl and get out. We're not trying to stop the fire right now, just rescue the child. The fire will come later.
Flames envelop the space in front of me and I step back to avoid the blast. My suit will protect me, to a degree, but still I feel like I'm boiling alive.
The flames rise up and I avoid them to find the stairs. I move carefully, checking the stability of each stair, each door and wall, before inching forward. One mistake could be fatal.
When I get to the second floor and locate the unit, I use the ax to break the door in.
"Sky?" Steve yells.
"Up here! Second floor!"
I do a quick search of the living room. The flames are licking at my feet as sweat trickles down my back, arms, face. "Hello? Anyone here?"
I hear a sob, but it's fading, which isn't a good sign. I think it's coming from one of the doors in the hall, likely a bedroom. I rush forward with more speed, and miscalculate the structural integrity of the unit.
The floor breaks under my right foot. I fall hard against the ground, my ax flying from my hand as I use my arms to break my landing. I try to stand, but my foot is stuck in the hardwood floorboards. "Steve!" I call for my backup, but don't hear him. I know the girl is in that bedroom, and that she's likely running out of air. I pull at my foot, desperate to get unstuck. The wood groans and burns around me.
Panic fills me, but I push it aside. You can't afford to let fear take over with a job like this; it would be paralyzing and deadly. I can still hear the girl cry if I strain, but it's so faint.
And then... it stops. Nothing. "Hello! If you can hear me, yell. I'm coming for you. Don't give up."
Fun fact, most people don't die in fires from the fire itself, but from smoke inhalation.
It's not really that fun of a fact, now that I think about it.
The fire is progressing in such a way that I know I have to find her or leave, and soon. I don't have the equipment to contain or control what this is becoming.
All I hear is the crackle of flames eating into the apartment and the tearing of wood as it falls apart. My radio comes to life, Blake's voice on the other end. "Sky, get out of there. Steve can't get in. We're using the ladder, but the structure isn't sound. Get out now!"
I reach for the ax. It's just out of reach and I push myself to stretch further until it's just barely in my grasp. Carefully, I pull it towards me until I can hold it securely.
With measured blows, I break apart the wood keeping my foot trapped and pull myself out, then stumble towards the bedroom door and push it open.
I see her there, on the other side of a wall of flames. She's unconscious, doesn’t have much time left.
So I rush forward.
And the ceiling collapses.
Beams of wood crash down between me and the girl, and I fall back just in time to avoid getting buried under the bulk of the debris. A large piece of stone ricochets off the wall and hits my mask with a loud crack. I scream in pain and suck in a lungful of smoke. The mask is broken, obstructing my view, so I tear it off and try to avoid taking deep breaths.
There's a window on the other side of the room, near the girl. If I can get there, I can get us out and use the ladder to get down.
Smoke fills my lungs. The room is a burning inferno, the wood turning to ash. A rush of dizziness sweeps over me. The smell of fire fills my nostrils. From the corner of the room, something moves. A flicker of a shadow, then the silhouette of a person. A man, I think. He faces the flames and I look to where he's looking, into the fire. And there... there I see the impossible. I see eyes in the flames. Red and burning. A set of teeth. A pair of claws. The world around me narrows in, growing darker, and I fall...
Arms pull at me.
My body is lifted.
Fire above me.
I can't breathe.
I suck in air, but it feels as if my lungs are full and can't take it all in.
Someone sticks a mask over my face, and oxygen forces itself into my reluctant lungs. Blake? I try to speak, but I can't.
"Gotta get you to an ambulance... "
I'm fading. My mind blinks out. And in the darkness, I see the beast writhing in the flames. Hungry. Waiting. Hunting.
And then I remember her... and my eyes pop open, and I pull the mask off my face, choking out words as I do. "There's a girl in there. Save her."
Blake stands over me, his eyes downcast. "I'm sorry, Sky. We can't go back in. Not until we put out the fire. The foundation is collapsing. It’s... It’s too late."