Into the fire because the frying pan wasn’t hot enough
Tireless, thankless work is certainly not uncommon. But when a man recognizes something that needs to be done, he’s not doing it to make himself comfortable or to receive praise.
He’s doing it because his duty as a man compels him to do it, simply because it needs to be done.
No group embodies this sentiment more than firefighters. The men who willingly hazard death and injury suffer no need of praise, accolade, or recognition.
“It’s not as glamorous as people would make it seem.”
Our own Cassius Cam is a rapper, hand-to-hand combat trainer, and not surprisingly, a firefighter.
“They could definitely pay us more, but that’s not the main reason a lot of people get into it.”
Guess he’s not doing it for the money, either.
“I’ve been in lumber and forestry since I was 18. I started working with forest maintenance with the state doing fire breaks and trail maintenance. Then after that, I started working in the lumber mills so I got to see that side of it.“
When a local ad went out looking for firefighters for hire, is it any surprise he and some of his friends threw their names in the hat?
“It’s a ragtag group,” he explains. “An eccentric mix of hicks, country boys, river rats and roughnecks. We have a crew of 20 guys and I knew half of those guys prior to going out on these fires.”
Whether he trains these guys at the gym, trains their children, or gets into the ring with them as workout or sparring partners, the connection is undeniable and certainly plays a role in the camaraderie practically required to do the type of work they do together.
Some of that camaraderie involves a built-in accountability. Cam described a longtime friend of his, Johnny, as “an uncommon man among uncommon men.”
“There are mornings when I wake up and say to myself ‘I don’t know if I can do this today’ and this SOB has already done 500 push-ups before breakfast.”
Cam was already in great shape before he started this work, so he didn’t have to work his way into shape to be able to endure the exhausting task of traipsing through the areas they have to go through. Especially the conditions under which they are working.
But not everyone is so lucky. He’s seen some struggle to adjust to long days on their feet in 100° heat, with 100 pounds of gear on their backs.
“How you do anything is how you do everything.“
Getting appropriate rest and making sure you’re getting the nutrition you need become paramount on these excursions.
“The hardest part is taking care of eating and drinking enough and making sure you’re getting rest. And taking care of your feet.”
Everyone is exhausted, smelly, and hungry. Living off of sack lunches. Cam laughs with a bit of resignation, “I lived off of tortillas and jerky for the last 7 days of the last run because I was so tired of the lunches.“
One of the biggest challenges under the circumstances is helping make sure everybody gets along. Nerves are frayed.
Halfway through the season, people are banged up and starting to wear on each other. Familiarity breeds contempt.
“I don’t let other people’s attitude become my attitude. I just keep cracking jokes and when people start arguing with each other, I just make fun of both of them.“
“Fatigue makes cowards of men.”
“You don’t notice how tired you are,” he admits as he describes The feeling that sets in at the end of a two week stretch fighting fires. The mandatory 2-day R&R can’t come soon enough, but there’s no real R&R until the adrenaline wears off.
This grind makes every other grind look like a vacation. 14-days on. Shifts typically 14-16 hours, but some days are 24 and 32 hour shifts. it’s a wonder they aren’t dropping like flies.
That’s probably why, when they finally have time off, they sometimes don’t wake up for over a day. Cam calls it the adrenaline dump.
“Everybody has plans for their 2 days of R&R and then, you wake up a day and a half later and say ‘so much for that.’“ He laughs, but you can sense a little frustration and disappointment at the inevitability of such a phenomenon.
Heightened awareness and adrenaline are required for survival
The job necessarily entails a constant risk of injury or worse. You can’t do it and not at least get a little banged up. But these men brave the danger and work long hours in spite of the pain.
Most of the injuries occur during the less intense periods “because people get complacent.” It wasn’t through complacency, but Cam suffered a badly sprained ankle halfway through the trek through the devastation at Yosemite.
“The job is about 90% prep and observation—10% chaos.”
What type of chaos? How about cutting down trees while they’re still on fire, while making sure you and your crew don’t get engulfed in the flames. Or walking into a forest on fire and doing everything you can to stop it.
No place like home?
After weeks fighting the Yosemite fire, Cam came back home to find a nearby town ablaze. After a quick R&R turnaround, he was sent out to help fight that fire.
Then, after fighting a fire in Trinity for a few weeks, he came back home again, this time to find the town where he grew up “getting absolutely demolished.”
“Back in 2014 there was an arson fire. I grew up in the neighborhood with the kid to lit it up. It burned down a couple hundred structures there and that neighborhood was just getting rebuilt and now it’s been destroyed again,” he says with a resignation that the place he once called home just can’t seem to catch a break.
“My wife is related to a lot of people in that area. We have a lot of friends and family. We even had to hustle to get my mom evacuated.”
He says she refuses to get a cell phone and he had a hell of a time getting in touch with her.
“Everyone is safe, but it’s just crazy how quickly a small little town like that get eaten up.”
Wind presents a big problem because the fire spreads faster. But some of these towns are used for lumber specifically because of the presence of persistent high winds.
That wind helps dry the lumber. Cam was really hoping to be sent to that fire so he could help out the people he grew up with.
But working for a private contractor, his assignments are left up to a bidding process. When his company gets the bid, that’s where he goes and if they don’t, he could be sent hundreds of miles away instead of fighting a fire in his backyard.
The owner of his company does what he can to give the guys opportunities to work as close to home as possible, but the areas awarding the bids ultimately determine who goes where and when.
“We could go anywhere. California has the best pay scale and mandatory double time.” Sounds hard to beat. “Maybe that’s by design,” he wonders out loud.
He describes the problem of California not allocating enough resources to clear out debris and brush. “The forests in California are tinderboxes. The intensity and speed with which these fires are picking up in California could probably be mitigated if they really just put more resources towards it.”
He’s speaking from experience.
“When I worked on that state crew when I was 18, that’s pretty much all we did. When I was with the conservation service, we were seeding forests, planting trees.”
In addition to poor resource allocation, important work is not being done in the off-season. “It’s been neglected so long, it’s kind of overwhelming to think about it.“
So why does he still subject himself to this?
“I was just born and raised out here and never really found a reason to leave. I like the community, I like the people, I like my four seasons. Other than being held hostage by the state of California, it’s a pretty ideal place to live.”
Behind every good man is a good woman.
The season runs from April to November, taking a toll not only on the crews, but putting a great deal of responsibility on those they leave to care for the homefront.
“It was rough at first, but she’s handling it better now,” Cam praises the effort and tenacity of his wife.
Just staying in contact with spotty cell phone reception is a challenge. Cam even had to get two phones with two different carriers, just to leverage the strongest signal wherever he is.
Any woman worth her salt would be proud of her husband for doing this type of work. But that pride is balanced by the concern and fear that every time he leaves, he may not make it back.
But she knows how important this work is to him for reasons that go beyond any kind of machismo or sense of adventure and heroic virtue. It is, in many ways, quite literally keeping him alive.
Idle hands are the devil’s playground
“I’m one of those type of people, being a recovering drug addict I need to constantly be challenging myself.”
It’s something he’s been dealing with for quite a while. “Both my parents were alcoholics. My dad drank himself to death.“
“The only thing that’s ever been able to really keep me away from that is if I’m just relentlessly pursuing really difficult shit.“
But there is a measure of resentment for the reality that he has to essentially invite suffering to keep himself clean.
“I had to make peace with the fact that I have to be uncomfortable to keep that at bay and that’s a sacrifice I have to be willing to make because if I don’t, it’s my livelihood.”
But it’s more than that. It’s more than just keeping himself employed so he can pay his bills. “Me in addiction and me sober are polar opposites. It’s not something I’m willing to put my family through again. It’s not something I’m willing to put myself through again.“
Even when he finally gets some time off, if he starts to feel like he’s getting a little antsy, “first thing I do is go to the gym.”
This is why the Hotep Fit Crew has been so important to him. Even when he’s too busy fighting fires to go to the gym, he checks in from the trail to let everyone know he’s still connected and part of the squad—A squad that roots each other on and holds each other accountable.
“Trey, Steph, Crypto, Tricia, AG, and what can you say about Jimmie Doss?” Cam has high prices for the Hotep Fit Crew and the relentless spirit that has been cultivated over the last year.
The Matrix Breaker
From a very young age, Cam has had an attitude and a passion for language, writing, and rhyming.
Now his music is being featured on podcasts and he has some very exciting collaborations on the horizon. but it all started with him just free-styling in middle school with his friends.
“At the end of the day, I just make music for myself.”
A Hero’s Grit
“I’m a blue-collar roughneck and I’m fucking proud of it. I’ll take less money and be uncomfortable if it means I don’t have to be a cog in the machine of this fucking façade of America.“Cassius Cam
“When you focus on the intangibles that you get from this stuff, what does wealth even fucking mean? Perception is reality and I’m as rich as I need to be right now.“
How rich? After his crew saved some homes on one of their recent assignments, a young girl hand-made a thank you note for them.
The men who willingly hazard death and injury suffer no need of praise, accolade, or recognition. But if it comes, it is not lost on them. And it becomes a battery in their backs at the end of a long, arduous journey.