The Clothes Make the Hero

Inspired by “Clothes Make the Man” by Henri Duvernois

By Letter Burn

A Message from Hell (2018) / By Josep Serra Tarragon, Pau Costa Foundation Art & Fire Collection



Danny had a plan. Travis remained dubious. But what other options did they have? Just out of the penitentiary, bosses wouldn’t hire them. Travis worried that this plan could send them back to the joint. However, Travis liked that he was dressed in Wildland firefighters’ Nomex.  Danny and Travis had been on wildfire prison crews a few times. Travis loved it. Danny hated it. They both knew how to act like firefighters. As they drove into the evacuating wildland-urban-interface neighborhood, the wildfire shuffled around some distance away.

Danny’s plan was to burglarize houses under the cover of evacuation panic and chaos. During this extremely busy fire season, police and fire folks couldn’t keep up. At this suburb, no cops, no firefighters. As Danny entered and burglarized the abandoned homes, Travis, as lookout, would signal Danny about trouble.  Travis was to explain to questioning evacuating people that they were watching for spot fires.

Panicked people did ask for information. How was the fire behaving? How much time did they have? Were they in danger right now? Travis tried to answer the best he could and his calming presence reassured them. They always thanked him for his self-sacrificing service and his bravery.

A middle-age woman scurried up to Travis. She cried and pleaded. Her disabled husband couldn’t make it to the car. She needed help. Travis quickly followed her back to her house. He found her husband struggling on the living room floor. Travis kneeled down and scoop up the man in his big arms. Gently and effortlessly, and with empathetic dignity, he carried the man and helped him into the wife’s car. The gratitude on their smiling faces startled Travis. “You are an angel. An angel sent to save us.” said the wife.

A  crying little girl ran up the Travis.  Her frightened kitten had climbed a tree and wouldn’t come down. Her family simply couldn’t leave without the kitten, the girl explained. Agile Travis quickly climbed up the tree and rescued the cat.

A pretty woman about his age, approached Travis. “My father said he won’t evacuate. He said he wants to burn up in the fire. When he was young he was a forest firefighter. Probably as strong and brave and handsome as you are. I think he is depressed because he is older now and not so powerful. Please, you’ve got to help me convince him that there’s still so much to live for. He is breaking my heart.”

Travis approached the Old Gentleman who stood astride a hose lay, holding a spanner and staring unsottenly at the coming fire. Travis said, “I think the only thing worse than burning up in a fire would be to know that you broke the hearts of everyone who loves you.” The old man turned, look at Travis for a second, and laughed. “I have no intention of burning up. I just said that to my panicked daughter to irritate her. I wanted to linger a bit longer to watch the behavior of this fire and the behavior and of the people trying to suppress it.”

“It has always been, even back in my day when I was a wildland firefighter, that the worst thing to do is suppress wildfires.” The old man continued, sensing a kindred soul in Travis. “You should only monitor fires. Strike it to save some critical wildlife habitat that’s not yet fire-hardy.  Go easy on cabin protection, some should burn down. Let fires into the WUI, that will make them fire-permeable. You’ve got to shepherd flames like they’re a flock of sheep. Move ‘em along during the right conditions. Protect critical areas by introducing less intense fires. But don’t kill big wildfires.”

“Some of the people now in charge of wildland policy wholeheartedly adhere to disaster capitalism. They unethically use the fear and the destruction of fires to pad their tribe’s pockets. They buy shiny new toys to build a fire-industrial complex that pays CEOs very well but keeps the firefighting ground pounders as paupers. They sometimes put the safety of lowly firefighters in peril because unnecessary bravery in the face of danger brings adoring media attention and more power to the bosses. Yet the bosses are too cowardly to do what is right and needed in prescribed fire and let burn policy. They need to back up and think with their better angels. They should seek the triad of safety, ethics, and ecology. Of course, we’re partially in this bind because we didn’t pay attention to ecology. And then the forests and wildlands grew and changed without the important component of fire. Global warming is making conditions worse. More intense fires. More severe fires. More enduring fires. More destructive fires.”

Then the old man suddenly stopped and pointed out to ravine and ridge top below them. “The fire is going to pulse here.” The old man said.  “This is where firefighters should cool it down and take away some of its energy. Otherwise, they should just let the fire wander through this WUI. It’s fire-permeable enough. Just be careful that the sparks don’t start houses on fire while no one pays attention. It will be smokey, but the fire can ease through here. Then the old man got into his daughter’s waiting car and they evacuated.

Danny opened the front door and he didn’t see Travis. But he did see the deputy sheriff standing in front of him. They both looked at the arm load of money, jewry, and electronics. Danny stammered out, “I was just helping people evacuate their valuables.” The sheriff said, “No firefighter enters a home during an evacuation without the homeowner. “I don’t think you’re a firefighter.” As the sheriff escorted the handcuffed Danny to the police car, he said “You know the thing that disgusts me the most is how guys like you could soil the hero status of firefighters. Take a look down there. That guy is magnificent and incredible and you threatened to smudge his good standing.” Danny looked down and saw Travis near the ridge top where the fire pulsed.  With a roaring fire hose he was single-handedly beating it back. The sheriff said, “He must be the free world’s best fireman.”