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Book excerpt: ‘Burnt – A Memoir of Fighting Fire’

A trailblazing memoir from Clare Frank, California’s first (and only) female chief of fire protection


The following excerpt is from “Burnt: A Memoir of Fighting Fire,” Chapter 2, “Blisters.” On the last day of a week-long fire academy, Frank and her fellow cadets learn how to ignite, then extinguish a wildfire. Now comes the hard part – the hike back to the training center and learning whether they will have a shot at a career in firefighting.

If heaven is sitting atop a smoky knoll after smothering flames, hell is the hike out. My blisters woke up as soon as I stood. And my sweat-soaked gear conducted an unshakable chill down my spine as redwood shade and a falling sun conspired against me. At a good clip, I could expect the distress to last at least 2½ hours. Drawing on my childhood churchgoing skills, I attenuated the pain by concentrating on something else.

At first, I started shyly, humming it. But it didn’t distract me enough, so then I belted out the words, “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall. Ninety-nine bottles of beer ….”

The only other gal in the class joined me. Then the guy in front of her chimed in, and the guy behind me, then all of us: “Take one down. Pass it around. Ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall.” Our singing line wove down the mountain, reminding each of us we weren’t in this alone.

We arrived back at Sandy Point Training Center with seven bottles left on our fourth time through the song. After circling our tools, we collapsed on the apron and listened to magical silence, awaiting a wrap-up speech from CK.

When he walked to the middle of the apron, we stirred, willing ourselves to sit up, to get into squad formation.

He waved us down. “You’ve earned a few minutes. Take it. Then clean up. And we’re done here. You’ll each get a certificate, which qualifies you to apply for jobs as they come open.” CK surveyed our sprawled, sweaty, Nomexed bodies, and broke into his cocky, crooked smile. He looked like a baker pleased at the creation he’d just set on cooling racks.

He started a slow clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Someone stood. Then we all did. We clapped in time, then snapped into formation while building a faster rhythm. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. I knew this hype from playing school sports—the soaring feeling of team, of pushing your limits alongside others who are doing the same to find victory in a place we couldn’t get to by ourselves. I stood straight, clapped hard, and clenched my jaw to keep tears from spilling—I had a shot at being a firefighter. We all did. Our hands sped past the rhythm, and we exploded into cheers. A tear leaked out. I caught it mid-cheek and saw others doing the same. In a week, we’d created what felt like a lifetime bond.

During cleanup, CK pulled me aside. “We have three current openings. Top three finishers here get jobs now.”

My stomach tightened. Was I one of them? Nervous, I bent to the ground to pick up a pinecone and tossed it from hand to hand.

“You got the top score.” CK cracked into a full smile and waited for my elation.

But I just stood there, transferring the pinecone from left hand to right and back, not sure how to explain my feelings—an understanding that this was getting real and that if I failed in this realm, it would splatter on other females who wanted a life filled with dirt and danger.

CK intercepted the pinecone. “You’ll be assigned to a coastal station. Couple captains there who can turn you into a good firefighter. One of them is a little crusty, but I’m guessing you can handle it.” He knew I was on a precipice and was asking me to step forward.

He held his hand up for a high-five. I slapped it and he grasped my hand. “You should be damn proud of yourself. I am.”

CK was an early believer in me—more than I was in myself. I felt baffled by his pride, so I just said, “Thanks, Cap.”

“You know how you can thank me? Never sing ‘Ninety-Nine Bottles’ again. Ever.”

I laughed. “Copy that.” My blisters and I limped off, as I hummed the tune aloud and ignored the pinecone chucked at my back.

Burnt: A Memoir of Fighting Fire
Burnt press kit
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams

Clare Frank served in the fire service for 30 years, rising to the rank of fire chief at the Milpitas (California) Fire Department, then to CAL FIRE’s chief of fire protection. She also served as a lawyer and peace officer. Now retired, she writes and speaks about her life with firefighters, lawyers and cops. Frank is the author of “Burnt: A Memoir of Fighting Fire.”