Where There’s Smoke

One question people often ask is, “What’s it really like going into a fire?” It’s a question that has many complex answers. There are probably as many nuances in those answers as there are firefighters. One thing we’d probably all agree on is that it’s not like what you see on TV or in the movies.

Of course not every fire is a blazing inferno. The majority are fairly small – a pot on a stove or a smoldering garbage can. But even a simple mattress fire can quickly fill a house or apartment with smoke. That smoke is often the most dangerous part of a fire.

So much of our world is made of plastic and synthetics, and when they burn, they produce dense, toxic, blinding smoke. In a serious structure fire, you literally cannot see the hand in front of your face. Imagine yourself, totally blind, inside a house you’ve never been in before. You’re bumping into furniture, tripping over children’s toys, groping, trying to find the stairs that lead up to the bedroom of someone who’s missing. Is it left or right at the top of the stairs? All the while there’s the heat, pressing in on you, inescapable. You need to keep moving forward, through it, because if you don’t find that person and soon, they’re going to die. They’re not going to burn to death, they’re going to choke on that poisonous black cloud that surrounds you.

firefighter in smoke

Photo by Ross Beckley

Hollywood likes to show great walls of flame. You can clearly see the blaze, the falling debris, everything, even the firefighters. It’s visually very impressive and totally unrealistic.

At best, what you see is a glow. If you’re close enough to the fire, the world goes from black, to grey, to dull orange. And by that point, it’s also bloody hot!

In the movie “Backdraft”, Kurt Russell walks into a burning building to rescue a child, with his fire coat open, his boots rolled down and no SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus). You can see the flames all around him. It’s very dramatic and about as far from reality as you can get. In real life he would have been dead three steps inside the door. I saw the film with a bunch of guys from my station. We were laughing so hard we almost got thrown out of the theatre.

You can’t really blame Hollywood. Most people don’t know any better. And if they showed what it was really like, what you’d see would be a black screen, with the sound of guys banging around and cursing, and the Darth Vader hiss of them breathing inside their SCBA.

And if the luck is with you, you find the person and you drag them out, choking and puking, from that poisonous black murk. Or you find the fire quick enough and put it out before the damage is too bad; before it consumes the wedding album, Grandma’s quilt, and the raggedy old teddy bear, the precious everyday treasures that embroider our lives.

And if the luck isn’t with you, you try to shake it off. You tell each other you did the best you could and you try to believe it. But you always wonder if you should have turned left instead of right at the top of the stairs. And you pray that next time it’s different.

That’s what it’s like inside a fire.



  1. Love the bio & comments -can’t wait to read the book

    Linda & Al

  2. I’m hooked already. I’ll be first in line at the book launch for my copy.

  3. I always saw movies or shows where they were surrounded by flames, and thought it looked unrealistic- but I like your humorous description of a black screen with banging and cursing! Can’t wait to read the book.

  4. Looks interesting – a firefighter murder-mystery written by a firefighter. Looking forward to reading it.

  5. I like your blog and especially “what it’s like in a fire”. Can’t wait to read the book!

    • John Kenny says:

      Thanks Eva, and everyone else. This particular piece is actually going appear as a “guest blog” on Digital Books Today, on October 26.

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