I live in wildfire country. Where I live, no matter what time of year it is one can’t be careless with flame. Ever. But that’s especially true during the Santa Ana season, which begins more or less next week and ends usually in December. For those of you who don’t know what Santa Ana season is, it’s the time of year when winds blow off the Nevada/Eastern California deserts bringing with them extremely dry and hot weather. Santa Ana season turns the part of Southern California where I live into a tinderbox. Want to know what it’s like when there’s a wildfire nearby? Imagine sitting with your spouse or partner, discussing exactly what each of you will take with you if you’re given the 10-minute evacuation order. Imagine going out to your car in the morning and finding it heavily sprinkled with ashes that used to be a housing development to the east. Imagine the sky you’re accustomed to turning coppery red and grey and looking like a post-apocalyptic film. And then there’s the matter of trying to get your dogs outside when they’re smart enough to know how dangerous it is out there. It’s not pretty. Trust me. And that is why I have the utmost respect, admiration and appreciation for firefighters.
Firefighters will do anything it takes, including giving up their own lives, to try to keep other people safe. They go into situations that the rest of us couldn’t possibly imagine. They have helped keep my home and my family safe more than once. You can’t find words to express the kind of gratitude I owe the brave men and women who steer us all through wildfire season. And they don’t go about bragging either. To them it’s simply doing their jobs. There are lots and lots of accounts of real-life firefighters whose bravery is remarkable. For example, there are the London firefighters whose incredible courage kept that city going during World War II. There are also the firefighters who risked and lost their lives during the 11 September, 2001 attacks in New York City and Washington DC. There are many, many others too.
There are also fictional firefighters who’ve shown us just a little of what it’s like to fight fires. For example, in Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House we meet firefighter Rose Kearny, who’s called with her team to the scene of a fire in a Southwark warehouse owned by MP Michael Yarwood. As the firefighters are going through the building they discover the body of an unidentified woman. So Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his team are called in to investigate. With help from Kincaid’s partner DI Gemma James, Kincaid discovers that the woman could be one of four women who’ve gone missing. As they’re trying to find out which of the women is the victim, there’s another fire. And another. Rose Kearny finds a link between the fires and when she shares it with Kincaid he’s able to find out what’s behind this rash of arson crimes. This novel includes a compelling look at the way firefighters do their jobs, the camaraderie they have and the way they depend on each other when there is a fire.
We also see that in Nevada Barr’s Firestorm. In that novel, U.S. National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon has been sent to Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. A wildfire – the Jackville Fire – has broken out and Pigeon is serving as a medic. She’s been assigned to a spike camp, a small temporary camp set up as close to the fire area as safety allows. At first, weather predictions are for cold weather and snow to move in so it looks as though the team will be able to leave the area. Pigeon and a few others stay behind to help a firefighter with a broken leg and that’s when a freak thunderstorm changes everything. Winds rise and a firestorm sweeps through. Everyone dives for cover in their shelters and when the storm has passed the firefighters check on each other. That’s when the body of firefighter Len Nims is found with a knife in his back. Now, Pigeon has to find out who the murderer is while at the same time taking care of the exhausted and wounded firefighters.
Oh, and even though it’s not crime fiction, if you want to get a real sense of what firefighters go through and what they do and what it’s like to go through a wildfire or bush fire read Adrian Hyland’s Kinglake-350. That’s the story of Black Saturday, 7 February of 2009, when a firestorm swept through the Australian state of Victoria. Even if you don’t think you’ll be interested in that event and those people, read it. It’s that much worth it. Really. Promise.
Sometimes a wildfire or bush fire isn’t the main theme of a novel but even then, fires can add tension to a story and the people who fight them can serve as very well-drawn characters. For example, Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Smelled a Rat takes place just before the first major snowstorm of the year in Moose County, “400 miles north of nowhere.” Everyone is eager for the snow season because it’s been a very dry summer and autumn and there’ve been several fires. Then there’s a rash of fires at local mineshafts and the already-overworked fire crew has to work even harder to keep the area as safe as possible. Newspaper columnist Jim “Qwill” Qwilleran takes an interest in the local fires not just because of the danger to his community but because they’re of interest as a news topic. Then one of the locals is killed and his place of business destroyed. It’s now clear that an arsonist is at work and Qwill works with Police Chief Andrew Brodie to find out who the murderer is and what’s behind the arson.
In Peter Temple’s Truth, Victoria Inspector Stephen Villani and his team investigate the murder of an unidentified young woman whose body is found in a posh penthouse in the elegant Presilio building. At the same time they’re investigating the murders of three drug dealers whose bodies are found in another part of the Melbourne area. In both cases, some very powerful people do not want Villani and his team to find out the truth about the murders. Woven throughout this novel is the fact that Victoria is under siege from bush fires. Although the fires themselves and those who fight them are not the main focus of this novel’s plot they add a very effective layer of tension. And in a point of interest, Temple refers to the Kinglake fires (see above) in this novel; it provides another perspective on what happened during that terrible time.
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch lives in the Los Angeles area so as you can imagine, wildfires are part of his life. The Black Ice for instance begins with a terrible wildfire not very far from Bosch’s home:
“The smoke carried up from the Cahuenga Pass and flattened beneath a layer of cool crossing air. From where Harry Bosch watched, the smoke looked like a gray anvil rising up the pass. The late afternoon sun gave the gray a pinkish tint at its highest point, tapering down to deepest black at its root, which was a brushfire moving up the hillside on the east side of the cut… nine houses were already gone on one street and those on the next street were in the path. The fire was moving toward the open hillsides of Griffith Park, where it might make a run for hours before being controlled.”
This novel doesn’t deal specifically with that fire. But that snippet should give you just a hint of what wildfire season is like in the part of Southern California where I live. And it does add a layer of realism and suspense to the novel.
I like my crime fiction to be realistic and honest. I do. And I know that firefighters are human beings like we all are and they have their imperfections and “bad apples” in the group. But I am always especially pleased when fictional firefighters are depicted sympathetically. I owe too many of the real ones too much not to feel that way.
On Another Note…
This post is dedicated to the very brave men and women who work at the station you see in the ‘photo and in all fire stations. I have seen those people after days on the fire line, their bodies exhausted, their faces covered with grime that used to be homes, having seen things that would put me in a mental institution. And yet they still go back. My family and I quite literally owe them our lives. What more can I say?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).