Exhausted Columbus firefighters gathered under a shade tree after fighting a fire in a residence on Lafayette Avenue July 15.

By Harry McCawley

Things like a fire can serve as a reminder that nothing should be taken for granted. I’ve gone through two fires in my 51 years of life in Columbus, incidents that had a direct impact on my family and our property.

There were damages in both situations, and we had to make serious adjustments in our day-to-day routines as repairs were made. Thankfully, save for a family cat that perished in the second fire, the only deprivations incurred were in the loss of material items.

In both instances, however, I gained something — a genuine appreciation of Columbus’ firefighters and the lengths to which they go in not only protecting lives and property but in helping people adjust to traumatic situations.

I first experienced this in 1996 when an apartment dwelling next to our home on Franklin Street went up in flames. That fire was so intense that firefighters quickly realized that saving the building was out of the question. Instead they directed their efforts to protecting the adjacent properties.

Of immediate concern was the garage attached to our house and the family car parked in the driveway. I still remember watching a firefighter outfitted in full gear, including an oxygen tank strapped to his back, perched half in and half out of the driver’s seat while he backed the car out of the driveway to a safe area.

Actually, our losses in that fire were minimal. The garage collapsed and some items were lost, but it’s been so long that I can’t remember what they were.

What I do remember to this day is a spirit of solicitude the firefighters extended to our family. It struck me at the time that this sort of activity would probably be routine to most of those who were protecting our family and our property, but the manner in which they went about their duties spoke to a genuine desire to help people in crisis.

That was 21 years ago, and I have to confess that at some point in the interval I fell back into the routine of taking things for granted. Fires once again became things that happened to someone else.

They were until a Saturday afternoon earlier this month when the phone rang and the caller said, “Your house is on fire.”

Actually it was the house of my son and daughter-in-law who lived a block away. By the time I got to the scene, fire crews already were in action. Fortunately none of the family was in the house at the time, but several family pets were and immediately became priority missions alongside the primary goal of containing the fire.

Firefighters went from room to room in search of the pets. The family dogs were the first to be found, and all but one quickly responded to rescue efforts. The largest of the brood, weighing in at well over 100 pounds, kept running away from his rescuers until he was finally corralled and lugged to safety.

The cats were another matter. One of them bit her rescuer but eventually gave way to common sense and allowed herself to be carried to safety. Another didn’t. Her remains were discovered in the days following the blaze in an upstairs hallway.

Sad as that loss was, the scene that still sticks in my mind was a group of firefighters under a tree on the front lawn. They were stripped to the waist of their gear, and each was hunched over in a show of pure exhaustion. They gulped down water as others wiped their faces or massaged their shoulders.

The temperature was in the high 80s, and even in shorts and a T-shirt I was sweating profusely. Minutes earlier those same firefighters had been shouldering large oxygen tanks on top of heavily padded outfits, going room to room extinguishing the remnants of the fire.

Others talked to my son and his wife, asking the location of any particularly valuable or important items that they would try to retrieve. Still others focused on family members, asking if there was anything they needed and trying to reassure the younger ones.

One offered suggestions about post-incident efforts to clean up the debris, particularly the need to quickly address the water-logged floors to avoid buckling in the future.

It was all done in a personal manner, denoting a genuine caring for the family rather than in an officious checklist of to-do items.

By day’s end the recovery period already had begun, and arrangements were underway for temporary living conditions.

The firefighters returned to their stations, but they left behind in my mind an image — that collection of exhausted men clustered under a tree gasping for air.

Our fire was only one of many that they have been called upon to fight in the course of their work. I don’t know of many occupations that require such dedication, but thankfully there are men and women willing to assume that responsibility.

I hope I never take them or so many other public servants for granted again.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.