On the Fireline Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters
by Matthew Desmond
University of Chicago Press, 2007
Cloth: 978-0-226-14408-5 | Paper: 978-0-226-14409-2 | Electronic: 978-0-226-14407-8
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226144078.001.0001
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

In this rugged account of a rugged profession, Matthew Desmond explores the heart and soul of the wildland firefighter. Having joined a firecrew in Northern Arizona as a young man, Desmond relates his experiences with intimate knowledge and native ease, adroitly balancing emotion with analysis and action with insight. On the Fireline shows that these firefighters aren’t the adrenaline junkies or romantic heroes as they’re so often portrayed.

An immersion into a dangerous world, On the Fireline is also a sophisticated analysis of a high-risk profession—and a captivating read.

“Gripping . . . a masterful account of how young men are able to face down wildfire, and why they volunteer for such an enterprise in the first place.”—David Grazian, Sociological Forum

“Along with the risks and sorrow, Desmond also presents the humor and comaraderie of ordinary men performing extraordinary tasks. . . . A good complement to Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire. Recommended.”—Library Journal

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Matthew Desmond is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

REVIEWS

“Rich in gritty detail, Matthew Desmond’s sociological study of a firecrew is a welcome addition to the literature of wildfire. His four years on a backcountry Forest Service crew provide authentic material—sometimes startlingly so—for his observations. If you want a look behind the flames to see what drives these people to come back year after blistering year then read this book.”
— John N. Maclean, author of Fire on the Mountain

On the Fireline is a riveting account of firemen of the U.S. Forest Service tackling wildland fires, as well as a detailed chronicle of the training, preparation, and bonhomie of depot life. By exploring how joining a firecrew matches, confirms, and extends the values of the rural culture within which the recruits grew up, Desmond offers a unique perspective on the social and psychological motivations for firefighting. The richness of the data he uncovers and his arresting style of presentation make this a distinctive and evocative work.”
— Paul Willis, author of Learning to Labor

“In recent years, ethnographers have tried to face up to the Bourdieuian challenge of showing how aspects of culture are rooted in daily practices and bodies. In this beautifully written work of participant observation, Matthew Desmond takes us into the world of wildland firefighters to help us better understand the dynamics of dangerous organizations and the workers who hold the line. At the same time, he moves ethnography forward: rather than following the all too common procedure of asserting the existence of knowledges that ‘go without saying’ for his subjects, Desmond shows in detail how habitus actually operates in everyday life.”
— Mitchell Duneier, author of Sidewalk and Slim’s Table

"Along with the risks and sorrow, Desmond also presents the humor and comradery of ordinary men performing extraordinary tasks. . . . A good complement to Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire. Recommended."
— Library Journal

"The book is beautifully written and theoretically sophisticated with truly surprising findings. . . . On the Fireline illustrates the unique questions, methods, and findings made possible by the sociological imagination and is, thus, an excellent text with which to solidify a semester's worth of sociological training. Further, because Desmond interweaves compelling narratives, complex theory, and a discussion of methodological rigor, it solidifies students' understanding of exactly how useful, and fascinating, the sociological lens can be."
— Lisa Wade, Teaching Sociology

"This is an important book because it illustrates a set of practices that are sufficient to maintain social order in a dangerous world. . . . Desmond deploys this complex argument with persuasive grounding and enviable control. We are in a stronger position to think about risk because of his efforts."
— Karl E. Wieck, Administrative Science Quarterly

"[The book is] a highly readable, at times funny, very insightful, Bourdieu-inspired ethnography of country masculinity, and as such very useful for courses on masculinity. It is a fine example of how to apply structuration theory and, therefore, a good resource for classes in social theory. It also offers a penetrating examination of the logic of bureaucratic organization and the way it creates a common sense world in which blame is always individualized. . . . A thick and rich take on a particular version of rural, masculine, working-class culture in the United States and how it fits with an institutional setting that requires young men to do dangerous work."
— Thomas Dunk, Canadian Journal of Sociology

TABLE OF CONTENTS

- Matthew Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226144078.003.0001
[firefighters, firefighting, wildland fires]
This introductory chapter, which begins with the author's story of how he became a firefighter, also describes the dangers faced by wildland firefighters. It then sets out the book's main purpose, which is to reconstruct the practical logic of firefighting specifically by focusing on how firefighters' dispositions and skills acquired from their rural, masculine, and working-class upbringings connect with the organizational common sense of the U.S. Forest Service to form a wildland firefighting habitus. An overview of the subsequent chapters is also presented. (pages 1 - 16)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

PART ONE - HISTORY AND PLACE

- Matthew Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226144078.003.0002
[firefighters, wildland firefighting, rural working class]
This chapter examines how the author's crewmembers initially decided to become firefighters and how a rural working-class upbringing predisposed them to the universe of wildland firefighting by equipping them with certain competences and attitudes. (pages 18 - 53)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Matthew Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226144078.003.0003
[firefighters, wildland firefighting, Elk River, fire station, downtime, country-masculine habitus]
What compels people to accept the burdens of firefighting? Why do they choose to take part in such a demanding and dangerous enterprise? This chapter demonstrates that the answers are to be found in the least likely place: downtime. Many sociologists have suggested that risk takers understand downtime as meaningless and dull. It is argued that, at Elk River, periods of waiting are saturated with meaning. Far from being “killed time” or “wasted time,” downtime is primetime. Elk River offers something more alluring than rushes or riches—something having to do with their country-masculine habitus. (pages 54 - 88)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

PART TWO - TRAINING AND DISCIPLINE

- Matthew Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226144078.003.0004
[firefighters, Elk River, brotherly bonds, teasing, repartee]
This chapter explores the brotherly bonds forged between firefighters at Elk River by focusing on the sometimes unbrotherly practices of repartee and aggressive teasing. It also highlights how crewmembers discipline one another, and how they espouse and act on key principles of the Forest Service through ostensibly innocent everyday practices. (pages 90 - 113)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Matthew Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226144078.003.0005
[firefighters, firefighting, Forest Service, environmental groups, forest management]
This chapter explains how firefighters are introduced to the common sense of the Forest Service through its symbolic struggles against environmental groups over the right to manage the forest and against structural firefighters over the title “real firefighter.” By participating in these struggles, crewmembers begin to see the world through the eyes of the Forest Service and soon come to identify with their host organization. (pages 114 - 141)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Matthew Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226144078.003.0006
[firefighter training, wildland firefighting, Forest Service]
This chapter analyzes how firefighters are educated, trained, and disciplined by their host organization. It begins by describing the training crewmembers receive for fighting fires, whether those fires are as small as a tent or as monstrous as the Rodeo fire. The chapter focuses specifically on the fundamental rules of wildland firefighting—The Ten Standard Fire Orders and the Eighteen Situations That Shout “Watch Out!”—because these mandates are the sacred commandments of firefighters; they are the unquestioned, fundamental doctrines of the Forest Service, which promise to keep firefighters safe. After explaining how firefighters are introduced to the Orders and Situations through training exercises and supervisors' injunctions, it recalls a single night on the front lines of the Rodeo fire to show how crewmembers apply these rules in the hot and fast action of firefighting. (pages 142 - 173)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Matthew Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226144078.003.0007
[firefighters, firefighting, self-determinacy, wildfires]
This chapter explores how the Forest Service cultivates within firefighters a specific professional disposition toward risk taking, what is called the illusion of self-determinacy, a collective belief that the uncontrollable force of wildfire is completely within firefighters' control and therefore devoid of danger. (pages 174 - 198)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

PART THREE - FIRE AND DEATH

- Matthew Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226144078.003.0008
[firefighters, firefighting, wildfires, self-determinacy]
Two events more than any others temper and test the firefighter's illusion of self-determinacy: a fire that rages out of control and the loss of a fellow firefighter. This chapter deals with the first. It is only by following firefighters through these vexatious tests that we acquire the deepest understanding of how they (and their supporting organization) comprehend safety and risk, fire and death. Only in these trying times when firefighters suffer defeat can we sufficiently gauge the durability of the illusion of self-determinacy. Beaver Creek was no ordinary fire. It was an especially violent blaze that forced the author and his crewmembers to drop their tools and run for their lives. As such, this fire—presented here in narrative form—provides a rich opportunity to observe not only the extreme danger and fast action of firefighting but also the way firefighters make sense of their world when it spins out of control. (pages 200 - 223)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Matthew Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226144078.003.0009
[firefighters, death, firefighting, Rick Lupe, Forest Service, self-determinacy]
The death of a firefighter poses a significant problem for the organizational common sense of the U.S. Forest Service because at first glance it seems to contradict its fundamental tenet: that fire is safe and controllable, that properly trained firefighters should never incur harm on the fireline. If the Forest Service strives to cultivate within firefighters an illusion of self-determinacy, how does the organization react when this illusion faces its biggest challenge, the death of a firefighter? What happens when the body of an experienced firefighter is “burned beyond recognition” and is brought before firefighters as evidence that the illusion of self-determinacy might be nothing more than a chimera? To address these questions, this chapter parses the organizational process through which the Forest Service manages death, first returning to that awful summer afternoon on Sawtooth Mountain with which the author began this book and describing the fallout surrounding Rick Lupe's burnover. It then broadens its analysis to the Forest Service's approach to all deaths. Finally, the chapter explores how firefighters themselves react to death, how their reactions are influenced by the common sense of the Forest Service, and how this affects their illusion of self-determinacy. (pages 224 - 264)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Matthew Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226144078.003.0010
[sociological knowledge, ethnography, risky work, professional socialization, social reproduction, firefighting, Forest Services]
This concluding chapter is divided into four parts, the first of which summarizes the main arguments of the book and explains how they challenge various currents of sociological knowledge. The second deals with the advantages and limitations of the theoretically driven methods employed—those of an ethnography of the habitus—and suggests how others might use these methods to advance the understanding of risky work, professional socialization, and social reproduction. The third part addresses how the author's arguments may better inform our understanding of risky work and argues for the importance of a sociology of risk. The final part highlights the book's practical implications and advances several concrete recommendations for the U.S. Forest Service, workable ideas that support the organization's goal of making firefighting as safe as possible. (pages 265 - 282)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Appendix: Between Native and Alien

Glossary

Notes

Acknowledgments

Index