The summer of 1994 was the year I became a firefighter.
I never signed up to fight Dante’s inferno. Nor did I desire to go anywhere near the ravaging storm of smoke and flame.
July 1994, I had a front-row seat to the devastation that happens when a spark plays in a summer forest.
My summer job through business school was planting trees for one of the largest tree harvesting companies in the world.
When minimum wage was $4.50 an hour, I made $100 a day.
The job was as crazy as the fools working it.
The mosquitos were as big as bumblebees.
The sun-baked terrain was hard, rigid, and rough.
When the mosquitos retired from the sweat of the day, they were substituted with horseflies that bit like mini pit bulls.
But I made $100 a day. A summer of insanity meant peaceful payments for another year of education and enough money to buy as much beer as I wanted.
Some of my tree planting buddies made extra cash on the weekends. They worked stand-by at the camp for “fire watch.”
Fire watch meant if there was a forest fire, the team would help the fire departments in containing the blaze.
They would do odd jobs around the camp for $8 per hour. And if a fire erupted, off they went to fight a forest fire.
I valued the little free time I had, so I never offered to do the weekend work. Plus, no one ever went to a real fire.
One Sunday afternoon, my parents found me at a friend’s house. I was called to do fire watch work.
No way, I said. It’s my day off.
Mom said, “It’s not an option. They said you have to go in if you want to work on Monday”.
I jumped on Honda CB 400 motorcycle, rushed home to change my clothes, and went to work odd jobs on a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon for a piddly $8 per hour. The sun boiled my blood.
Arriving at the camp, I was told the first crew was called to a fire.
Fire pay was $20 an hour. Lucky buggers.
I was asked to clean out the sleeping barracks. I could’ve been swimming right now, I thought. Oh well, I’m here. Might as well do what the foreman wants, even if it’s only $8 an hour.
30 minutes into the job, the foreman runs out of the main building.
“We gotta go. Drop everything. We gotta go”.
Gotta go where?
What’s going on?
Are we going to help Team 1?
So many questions. No time for answers.
We jump into the 15-passenger van, and off we go to god knows where.
On the way, our foreman Kenny tells us a second fire has broken out about 20 minutes away.
A real fire. I don’t know how to fight a real fire. I have no fire fighting training. I’m a business student planting trees to pay for my education. What do I know?
We get to the fire, and we’re given water backpacks and told not to get surrounded by fire. The packs hold 10 gallons of water. Somebody said, here’s your piss-pack.
We work with a buddy system. Always two people together.
Great, I think, instead of one person dying, we’ll go out in pairs.
I know nothing about fire. I don’t even own a lighter.
Once we helped the fire department roll out their hoses, Kenny started acting like Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump. Do you remember the scene when Lieutenant Dan is in the crow’s nest on the shrimp boat during the hurricane? Kenny screams at the fire like Lt. Dan. He was yelling at the fire like he was fighting for his life against the devil himself.
Good for Kenny. $20 an hour isn’t the value I place on my life.
A bulldozer pulled up like a tank on the battlefield.
The dozer made a road by scraping and tearing trees to each side.
It looked like a service road for the heavy equipment.
Someone said it created a perimeter around the fire.
They called it a firewall.
That can’t be a firewall, I think.
Flames are spitting off the spruce trees 80 feet in the air.
The firewall is burning the skin off my face.
We set up a pumping station at a nearby river and pumped water into the firetrucks.
One of my tree planting buddies stayed there and filled the trucks.
Lucky guy, I thought. Easy job.
A few minutes later, I was given the task of making sure the fire didn’t jump the firewall.
Armed with a 10-gallon “piss pack” on my back, I was in charge of protecting the green forest on the other side of the firewall perimeter.
There was nothing to do for 5 hours. All alone.
What the hell happened to the buddy system?
I felt like a hunter with no prey.
I was fighting a forest fire by watching it from a tree stump on the other side of the firewall-built road.
The fire never crossed the road. Lieutenant Ken did a formidable job in his battle with the demon.
For the next three days, we walked the 100-acre woods, putting out hotspots with water from our piss packs.
I earned $600 for my troubles.
No mosquitoes or horseflies. Just smoke and soot.
The dozer-built road is like your business growth.
There’s a natural firewall around your business.
It limits where you can go.
It contains you within the perimeter.
You can burn a good size business inside the walls of the road.
But eventually, you’ll need or want more.
To jump the road the flames have to burn hotter and higher than ever before.
If you fuel the fire with marketing that connects with your customers, flames can jump 80 feet in the air, unleashing a spark to the other side of the barrier.
You will not cross the road with smoke.
You need a furious flame.
If the forest fire of 1994 taught me anything, it’s this:
There’s just some dude guarding the other side of the road with a 10-gallon piss pack.
He ain’t gonna stop you as you rage through his territory.
No one is. They didn’t expect your ferocity.
Instead of stopping you, they will call in a bulldozer and build a new firewall further out to contain your blaze.