by Linnea Edmeier
I traveled to San Diego to join the celebration of life for Fire Apparatus Engineer Cory Iverson. FAE Iverson was killed a little over a week before. Never mind that it was a campaign fire, the kind that scores headline-ready stats and records. The grief and emotional exhaustion his wife must endure is beyond comprehension. She’s pregnant with their second child. Their daughter is two.
No, I didn’t know Cory personally. Our time in CAL FIRE didn’t overlap.
No, I don’t know his friends or his blood family. I do have friends still in the department who had tangential ties to Engineer Iverson. The afternoon of his death, we reached out to one another in the way fire people do. Simply, without pretense, without obvious emotion.
This, the day dedicated to celebrating his life, is two days before Christmas. Like many people, my life is triple booked.
But I do have friends and a niece in San Diego I can visit while in town. Kids’ soccer schedules, work travel, grown-up-life make for long overdue visits. The flight will cost me, but I have a free reward night from a hotel group, so it won’t be an expensive trip. And 36 hours is nothing, my teenage boys and their dad will be happy to eat dinner while watching a movie not on my favorites list.
Over the prior week, I’ve used answers and explanations just like those to reason away curious looks and questions as to why I’d make such a trip “right before Christmas” to honor someone I didn’t personally know. After all, who’s really going to care if I’m there or not? One more suit in a sea of Class A uniforms isn’t going to make much difference. Should just stay home and sleep, watch the ceremony online and make those teenagers eat a proper dinner.
As I continued to repeat my reasons for going, it occurred to me that I had been struggling to justify them to myself. Coming out of my mouth, they sounded hollow.
I saw my first big fire in the same area where FAE Iverson was killed. I was nineteen, which at once feels like a hundred years ago and last summer. At the time, I had been with the department a little over a month, but luckily I was at a hot station with seasoned captains and fellow firefighters who had anywhere from three to five seasons in. It wasn’t until years later (and a number of poor leaders) that I fully appreciated their solid leadership early in my career.
We had traveled overnight to reach the fireline. I saw fire that day that nothing could have prepared me for. Our line of engines drove from the beach up the mountain through what seemed like a portal into some fantastic world. The sky turned mud brown and lowered itself onto us like a curtain of thick, dirty gauze. In those days, the engines had open crew compartments in the back. It was customary for the newbie to sit back there and communicate with hand signals or predetermined beeps on the ‘oh jeezus’ button, as we called it. Two meant you were ready, one meant stop and three meant either back-up or you’d forgotten one and two and were losing your mind and probably your job.
On this day, they had me riding in the front seat, in the middle. As we passed power poles on fire and lines down, the captain nudged my arm and said, “Now, if I tell you to do something and you’re afraid to do it … let me know.” (Silence from me, but I thought, good, communication, it’s good, he’s respectful of my new-ness) He continued, “And I’ll kick you in the ass and you’ll do it anyway.”
We were on the line for at least twenty-four hours straight. During my first structure protection, the trees were licking the house and putting blisters on the paint the size of grapefruits. Long before smartphones, many of us carried Olympus cameras for their superb picture quality and because they fit perfectly in the front pocket of our Nomex. As the paint on the house blistered and the fire commanded all sound into the earth-vibrating roar of a freight train, common to such wind-driven fires, my nozzleman put down the hose, reached into his pocket, pulled out his camera and snapped a few pictures. The highlight reel in my head plays back this scene in slo-mo.
So was my initiation to erratic fire behavior and to courage and trust that foster camaraderie. So is my familiarity with the fire behavior that took Cory’s life and the courage he and everyone must have had to believe they could make a difference.
When word circulated through back channels that Engineer Iverson had been killed, an odd sort of survivor’s guilt threaded its way through conversations. Less sharp, less focused, it had less to do with surviving our own close calls and more to do with “did we leave all the lessons behind we possibly could?” You do this job long enough, you see your new hires promoted to officers. Fortunate enough to be one of the captains on the hiring committee, I had the chance to interview, hire and promote a few of the best candidates. I recall the day my newest engineer was about to leave on a strike team without me. In command of his first engine, he was the sharpest firefighter, now engineer, I had ever hired. Yet, good as he was, his past seasons weren’t particularly notable for their fires. I took the Strike Team Leader aside and told him he had the smartest, most capable engineer I had ever worked with … but … “he’s never seen the kind of fire he’s going to see where you are going, so I’m trusting you to watch out for him.” It was such a hen thing to do. Looking back, I’d do it all over again. There’s a sense of responsibility for your crew that comes with being an officer, it follows the sense of pride you feel in your team. FAE Iverson will live on in the lessons he left behind. His life will serve as a reminder that the risk is real. I can only imagine the broken spirit of his captain, chief, battalion and unit.
Being the wife of a former fire pilot, I know the held-breath risk we fold into our lives. When you are around emergency personnel and have designed your life for odd schedules, you normalize what others find remarkable. My 8-month-old sat in the seat of the helitack copter his dad flew; I learned to passively listen to the scanner, I learned to not worry when my husband didn’t call right after cut off. All the while I was the mom on the fire engine. We know the risk, but in order to live with peace, happiness and passion, we compartmentalize it. My hope is that we remember Ashley Iverson years from now as her children grow and she continues to adjust to a world in which her risk became reality.
Many years ago, a very close friend of mine was killed in a car accident on her way home from a fire. The crew that cut her out of the car and worked on her had been her crew the year before. I was overwhelmed at her funeral — not by the ceremony, but by an ocean of grief for the lovely friend I had lost. The grief still grips me when I think of all of us youngsters in our uniforms, tears streaming down our faces, unable to control our sobs as we stood in front of the chapel. I have yet to be able to hold Cory’s crewmates in my mind’s eye. Their grief is no doubt cavernous.
No, I didn’t know Engineer Cory Iverson personally. But I have walked a mile in his boots.
My reasons for taking a moment out of my life to celebrate FAE Iverson’s life? Walk a mile in my fire boots – in our fire boots – and you’ll know the answer.
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Linnea Edmeier chased fire and worked emergency incidents for nearly two decades as a captain for CAL FIRE. A ground pounder for most of her career, Linnea credits her time at helitack for strengthening the ideals of camaraderie and for giving her time to train as a competitive mountain biker. After the fire service, Linnea added documentary film, radio and photography to her bag. You may have seen her work in independent films such as the PBS Ken Burns documentary, Prohibition; heard her voice covering NASA from Cape Canaveral, or seen her photos in various online news packages. She’s managed to make a decent life in her second act, but fire remains her first love.