As a child, there were few things I wanted to do more than join the fire service, say play rugby for England perhaps. In 2007, after a period soul searching and backpacking in Australia, I found my dream and was offered a job with a UK brigade at the age of 23. Almost 10 years later I’m back in Australia, attempting to rekindle the fire inside. So, what happened?
Being a firefighter was everything I imagined it to be – for a while. I was on a vibrant watch that felt like family, had the thrill of responding to emergency calls and got the chance to engage positively with the community. Then it all changed.
After almost a decade as an operational firefighter, I witnessed exposure to some nasty incidents, a culture of senior management harassment, an increase in firefighter fatalities and an ongoing dispute with central government over pension reform. It has left many firefighters and their family’s futures in a state of uncertainty.
This has taken its toll on us all. This and the 24/7 digital culture we live in – streaming news, constant dramas and dilemmas to our mobile inboxes. As time went by, clocking off from the job became harder for me.
It was this bombardment that led to my first wild camping experience in 2010 at a dark skies zone in Scotland. I just switched off and got lost. Now in Australia – where I am doing research with Melbourne’s metropolitan fire brigade into emergency medical response – I have taken this to another level and have begun to re-wild my urban soul.
Riding fire engines really is the best job in the world but I just didn’t seem to have the love for it any more
Re-wilding is about learning the basic survival skills of our ancestors – in particular those of the indigenous people of the land – and in doing so, healing both yourself and the land. The skills learned might essentially be the same the world over but the natural materials and techniques differ. A fire kit in one country will be different from that in another.
These skills, which were crucial to our survival and evolution as a human species, are maintained by few and learned by even less. Re-wilding is a way to ensure they don’t die out and provides us with a unique way to disconnect from our digital lives and reconnect with the land and each other.
I took part in a re-wilding event in Melbourne, in exchange for photographing the event for the woman who ran it, Claire Dunn, author of My Year Without Matches. It gave me an opportunity to marry up a number of my favorite hobbies – including photography, philosophy and writing – and decompress from fire brigade life. I also learned a sacred skill: how to make fire by my own hand.
To escape from the pressures of working in the UK public sector, I used to wild camp, hike and climb. But I always felt too dependent on technology, such as self-lighting stoves and lighters. Although it is one of the most sacred skills acquired by our ancestors, very few people today can create fire without the aid of an ignition source and it was by no means easy to learn.
The more I wanted to do it, the less it was happening for me. But after many attempts Dunn whispered to me, “trying negates the effort”, in a kind of Yoda, Empire Strikes Back-moment. I did not manage to levitate any rocks but, soon after, the high pitched squeal of wood on wood that had been echoing throughout the park gave way to a gentle grinding sound – and lots of smoke.
The first time you make a ball of fire in your hands, from a coal you ground yourself on a fire board, is a very special moment and all you can do is quietly reflect on it. Suddenly, after 10 years of putting out fires for a living, I was making it by hand and with nothing more than two bits of wood.
Now, it is not just life in the fire brigade I have managed to clock off from but the white noise associated with it: a life of protest and resistance to injustice and the constant pinging of my mobile devices. For that I attribute the time I have spent learning and consolidating the skills of re-wilding.
I can’t say if I was burned out as a frontline operational firefighter after only a decade into a now 40-year career. But even though riding fire engines really is the best job in the world, I just didn’t seem to have the love for it any more. For that I blame the people in positions of power.
I read recently that burnout is a type of PTSD, and linked directly to poor organizational leadership. People who suffer from burnout tend to love and excel at their jobs – it is not the work that gets to them, it is the leadership, or lack thereof, that leads to burnout of the workforce. I think that’s why many great people in the UK Fire and Rescue Service are now clocking off from the job for good, leaving what was once a career for life.
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