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How firefighters’ wives beat the heat of worry

They strike as classic soldiers, sprung from the same bloodlines as ancient warriors locked into grim-faced battle mode with a dangerous, unpredictable enemy that would just as soon kill someone as not. If it wasn’t hard work, they wouldn’t call it warfare, but the firefighters stretched in a line from San Diego to Los Angeles have asked no quarter this week.

This is the kind of fight they love, the kind they live for. Training, ingenuity, strength, guts -- now is the time when they get to put them into play.

Most of us don’t necessarily grasp that, but if you’re married to a firefighter, you do.

And when your husband heads off to battle -- as Lynn Dodge’s did when the week started, you begin to gird as well.

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That isn’t to say she lies awake at night or frets away the daylight hours awaiting his return. But she knows that her 50-year-old husband, Doug, a captain with the Orange County Fire Authority, is in the canyons of eastern Orange County. She’s even seen him in a newspaper photo, flanked by fire and silhouetted atop a ridge while huddled inside a portable aluminum shelter that had to be deployed when he and his crew were about to be overrun by flames.

The Dodge family home in Aliso Viejo seems a long way from the front, but it’s not. A short walk from the house and the smoke from the canyons is easily seen. Everyone related to a firefighter knows this isn’t a normal week at work; this is the big one.

Lynn Dodge, 48, is hanging tough.

“I’m kind of a seasoned veteran,” she says Wednesday morning after dropping her daughter off at school. “You do worry, but having him close to home, I don’t feel as worried. The danger is still there, but they’re very well-trained.”

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Most of the time, there’s no need to contemplate bad things when a firefighter goes to work, but this week’s historic fires in Southern California put a different slant on things.

“I think it’s the unknown,” Dodge says when asked about the fear this week. “You have moments where you wonder where they are, what they’re doing. You just hope they’re safe. He was at Lake Arrowhead for the 2003 fires, he’s been down to San Diego when they had their big fire, and you don’t hear from them for two or three days at a time when they’re out.”

She and Doug married 20 years ago, but it wasn’t until five years into the marriage -- when he was in his mid-30s -- that he decided to become a firefighter.

She chuckles when recalling her initial reactions, but early on, she insisted on staying in the loop about her husband’s job. That isn’t a trait of all firefighters’ wives. “Some don’t have a clue what’s going on,” she says. “Some wives don’t want to know. I’m very passionate about supporting him and the other wives. I just feel a part of them.”

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That feeling springs from her first brush with serious firefighting, the 1993 Laguna Beach fire. Doug was a relative novice.

“I had a 2-year-old at home, and I was freaking out. There was nobody to call. I didn’t know any wives. You just sit there and watch too much TV and worry and worry.”

She began this week with four to six hours of TV-watching Monday. She had a need to know, but the ferocity of the fires and difficulty in fighting them was unsettling. She decided to return to the mode that firefighters’ wives often adopt -- to resume normal life.

In a week like this, that can sound like denial, but it’s more a matter of doing what must be done. Because of firefighters’ work shifts, most spouses develop a degree of independence at home and a need to take care of business while their husbands or wives are working 24-hour shifts.

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But how do you do that when TV is showing flames leaping and climbing over terrain and getting, almost literally, into the firefighters’ faces?

“You don’t want to think about it,” Dodge says. “That’s part of the protective mechanism. Does that make sense?”

She knows the firefighter creed stresses safety. Still, she also knows that there’s nothing her husband and the others want more than to engage and destroy the enemy.

And as she talks about that, it’s clear she’s not completely sure where their passion comes from.

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“Their passion is the flame,” she says, trying to make sense of it. “It can be so powerful and so overwhelming, yet we can sit here and watch it [at home] and be relaxed and it can calm us. It’s something that’s very powerful, it cooks your food for you, it does everything for you, it’s so powerful, and that’s why they’re attracted to it.” She laughs and says, “I’m reaching for straws here, trying to figure it out.”

One of the wives’ inside jokes, she says, is that they all know it’s been a good day at work when their husbands come home smelling like smoke.

In that sense, the people on the lines are just where they want to be this week. For those left at home, some will be anxious and others less so. But no one is kidding themselves about this being just another week at the office.

So, is she afraid this week? “It’s in the back of my mind,” she says. “Everywhere I go, I carry it with me. I just know how to deal with it. What it comes down to is that I’ve learned how to work through the feelings.”

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.


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