Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


yarnell-fire

Yarnell Hill Fire. (PHOTO: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE)

Why Do Firefighters Choose Such Risky Work?

• July 01, 2013 • 4:31 PM

Yarnell Hill Fire. (PHOTO: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE)

They don’t—or at least they don’t think they do.

Firefighters put their lives on the line to protect other people’s property and lives. Why do they choose to take such dangerous work? Sociologist Matthew Desmond asks this question in his book, On the Fireline: Living and Dying With Wildland Firefighters, and the answer is truly surprising.

Desmond, who put himself through college fighting fires in Arizona, returned to his old job as a graduate student in order to study his fellow firefighters. When he asked them why they were willing to put their lives at risk to fight fires, the firefighters responded, “Risk? What risk?”

It turned out that the firefighters didn’t think that their work was dangerous. How is this possible?

Desmond explains that most of the firefighters were working-class men from the country who had been working with nature all of their lives. They raised cattle and rode horses; they cut down trees, chopped firewood, and built fences; they hunted and fished as often as they could. They were at home in nature. They felt that they knew nature. And they had been manipulating nature all their lives. Desmond wrote: “[M]y crewmembers are much more than confident on the fireline. They are comfortable.”

To these men, fire was just another part of nature. They believed that if you understood the forest, respected fire, and paid attention, then you could keep yourself safe. Period. Fire wasn’t dangerous. One of the firefighters put it like this:

Cause, personally, I don’t consider my life in danger. I think that the people I work with and with the knowledge I know, my life isn’t in danger…. If you know, as a firefighter, how to act on a fire, how to approach it, this and that, I mean you’re, yeah, fire can hurt you. But if you know, if you can soak up the stuff that has been taught to you, it’s not a dangerous job.

When these men were called “heroes,” they laughed. Desmond wrote: “The thought of dying on the fireline is so distant from firefighters’ imaginations that they find the idea comedic.”

When a fellow firefighter did tragically die on the fireline during Desmond’s study, he discovered just how deep this went. Unwilling to consider the possibility that fire was dangerous (at least in front of each other), the only way to make sense of the death was to find fault in an individual, or even blame the dead firefighter for being “stupid.” Desmond recounts this conversation:

“That sucks,” J.J. said.

“Someone fucked up,” Donald responded, immediately. “I’ll tell you what happened: Someone fucked up….”

Heads nodded.

Craig Neilson, the Fire Prevention Officer, added, “Their communications might have been fucked…. The fire was under them and burned up.”

“They probably weren’t paying attention,” Donald said. …

“They’re probably stupid. Probably weren’t talking to their crew,” Peter guessed.

“Yep. They’re fuckin’ stupid, not talking to anyone. They should’ve known better than to build a helispot on top of the fire,” said Donald.

Heads continued to nod….

Desmond’s answer to why firefighters take such a risky job—because they don’t think it’s risky—was a fabulous counterpoint to dominant theories of risk-taking at the time, which tended to suggest that men who did risky things were trying to prove their masculinity or seek adoration as a hero.

It’s easy to conclude that the firefighters are delusional for thinking that fire isn’t risky, but Desmond does a wonderful job of showing that their denial of risk is mundane. We do it every day that we jump into a car and approach 70 miles per hour on the freeway. If we are worried about our safety, it’s usually because we are concerned about the skills and attention of other drivers. Most of us think that we, personally, are pretty decent, even great drivers. The firefighters tend to feel the same about fire.

Yesterday’s deaths remind us that fire is dangerous. We should also remember that risky jobs are disproportionately filled by the least powerful members of our society. Wildland firefighters are typically low-income men from rural backgrounds; in Desmond’s study, they were also disproportionately Latino and American Indian. As Desmond wrote: “Certain bodies, deemed precious, are protected, while others, deemed expendable, protect.” Let’s take a moment to remember the 19 who lost their lives yesterday, as well as the other men and women who do the dangerous work of America. And be careful everybody.

Note for Instructors: I teach this book in Soc. 101 with great success. I wrote and you can download my lecture notes here.


This post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site.

Lisa Wade
Lisa Wade, Ph.D., holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an M.A. in Human Sexuality from New York University. She is an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @lisawade.

More From Lisa Wade

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 2 • 5:00 AM

Give Us This Day Our Daily Brands

Researchers find identifying with brand-name products reduces religiosity.


October 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Can’t Anyone Break the Women’s Marathon Record?

Paula Radcliffe set the world record in 2003. Since then? No one’s come within three minutes of her mark.


October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription With Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.