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Burning Down the House: Fighting Fires and Losing Myself [Hardcover]

Russell Wangersky
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 1 2008

Winner of the 2009 British Columbia's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, short-listed for the 2008 Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize

Thousands of boys dream of becoming firefighters. Some get the chance, and for some of those, the dream becomes a nightmare.Burning Down the House is the story of Wangersky's eight-year career as a volunteer firefighter, an experience that wound up reaching into every facet of his life and changed the way he saw the world forever. Written in vibrant, luminous prose, the book traces his years from rookie to veteran firefighter and the toll it took on his personal life. Offering a rare glimpse into physical dangers and psychological costs of trying to save strangers' lives, Wangersky paints a harrowing and sometimes heartbreakingly vivid portrait of the fires, medical calls, and automobile accidents that are the standard fare of the profession.

Visceral and affecting, Burning Down the House is an insightful insider's account of the perilous world of firefighting and an unforgettable memoir of how, in finding his passion, Wangersky lost himself.


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Review

This is a book about the deleterious effects of maintaining professional silence regarding one’s own traumatic experiences. Burning Down the House may be an act of exorcism for its troubled author, but it is also a compellingly candid, incendiary narrative of emotional and mental decline.

(An) astonishingly insightful and harrowing depiction of modern-day fire-fighting...an account so relentlessly lucid and visceral that the reader emerges from the experience almost as exhausted and traumatized as the writer himself.

This is not the tabloid heroism of the breathless headlines: Wangersky captures the confusion and fear of being inside a burning building as floors suddenly disappear; the tragedies narrowly averted; the sense of shock as the crew struggles to recover the body of a woman from a car crash. Wangersky, a long-time journalist who is now the editor of The Telegram in St. John's, handles these scenes with a terse candour, balancing an in-the-moment experiential quality with a keen eye for detail and the larger ramifications of what happens. The heart of the book, though, is in his account of the emotional toll it all takes.

Burning Down the House is such a raw book, one that lays bare both terrible moments in time and the author's own unravelling. Over and over, he breaks down a blaze or a crash, probing its anatomy, its beginning and its end. This is a cautionary tale, one you might want to give to a teenager newly licensed to drive, or to a man who thinks he drives better with a few beers under his belt, or a woman who has removed the batteries from the smoke detector because it goes off when she fries bacon. I was left with a powerful sense of just how fragile the human body is, how vulnerable to tons of metal and rubber moving along at 120 kilometres an hour, how sometimes nefarious in nature is the "red devil" called fire. Accidents portrayed on film and television somehow seem neater, certainly quieter. Crash victims don't scream all the while they're being rescued, but some do in this book. If I thought "the jaws of life" always get that trapped driver out quickly, I don't think that any more. I would have wished for even more from the author on the actual physics of fire, while the material on his personal torments (the doubting, self-loathing and self-absorption) was almost too much to bear. But when Wangersky is rushing to the scene of a house in flames or to carnage on a dark county road, he is an all-senses-charged witness with an unerring eye for detail. In this haunting meditation on fate and chance, he literally takes you there.

Russell Wangersky's book about his years spent as a volunteer firefighter, first in Wolfville and then Newfoundland, is so cinematically vivid—you can almost smell acrid toxic smoke and imagine human pulp on the highway...

...a master storyteller with a keen eye for the critical details that bring his written descriptions to life as cinematic scenes.

About the Author

Russell Wangersky's most recent book,The Glass Harmonica, won the 2010 BMO Winterset Award and was longlisted for the Relit Awards. His previous book, Burning Down the House: Fighting Fires and Losing Myself won Canada's largest non-fiction prize, the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. Wangersky lives and works in St. John's, where he is an editor and columnist with the St. John's Telegram.


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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By Wilson
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I'm a rookie volunteer firefighter. I heard about this book from my somewhat-concerned brother, who had heard the author on CBC radio and was worried about the emotional and psychological costs of being a first responder.

The author was a volunteer firefighter, and then an officer in a volunteer company for about 8 years total. He walked away from that experience with what can be described as pretty severe PTSD not from one particular bad incident but by the accumulation of stresses common to firefighters.

People sometimes assume that things are easier for volunteer firefighters compared to career guys, but the author makes some interesting points that I am already starting to notice. For one thing, volunteers go home after calls, rather than staying at the stations and finishing out their shifts with their comrades. Volunteers are also on-call 24/7, unlike career guys who typicall serve long shifts and then go home "off the clock".

Now neither I nor the author am saying volunteers have it harder. Career guys have a ton of additional stressors, etc. It's just that anyone, myself included, who assumed that it would be rare for a volunteer to develop stress injuries/disorders as a firefighter need only read this book and think again.

I would recommend this book to firefighters, those thinking of becoming firefighters and especially to parents, partners and (adult) children of volunteer firefighters. The author opens up in a way that few if any firefighters are even going to do, even/especially with their loved ones. I've been on less than a year, but there are already a few things that I don't talk about with my wife, friends or day-job co-workers.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Firefighter's Memoir Oct. 26 2013
By Dit
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Illuminating memoir about the experiences of a Canadian firefighter/writer in Eastern Canada. Wangersky writes well and obviously knows his subject.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Lyrical, Evocative and Brutally Honest Aug. 20 2013
Format:Hardcover
The gold standard for firefighting memoirs used to be Dennis Smith's "Report from Engine Co. 82". Russell Wangersky has raised that bar several notches. Wangersky is first and foremost a talented writer, and brings that craftsmanship to bear full force in "Burning Down the House". His account of his years as a volunteer firefighter is lyrical, evocative and brutally honest. As a career firefighter myself for 25 years it is simply the best description I have ever read, of the job and the impact it can have on a firefighter's personal life. As an aspiring writer it is full of "Jeez, I wish I had written that!" moments. Most of us are not as deeply traumatized by the horrors we witness. Wangersky freely admits that he probably never should have become a firefighter. However, beyond simply being a great read, "Burning Down the House" accomplishes two significant tasks. First it gives recognition to the tremendous service that volunteer firefighters around the world render to their communities. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, he demolishes the stereotype of the firefighter as some sort of superhuman. As Wangersky so eloquently portrays, we fear, we bleed and we weep.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Truth Will Out Feb. 6 2012
Format:Paperback
When I saw the title of this book, I thought it would just be about different fires, and the semantics involved to fight them. In other words, an 'adventure' story. This book has gone waaay beyond that - it is a courageous sharing of the emotional stresses & tolls that a firefighter faces and battles. Not just the fires are a battle. This 'expose' if you will has been a long time coming & it would behoove all of us - including the firefighters to recognize the emotional & internal toll that such a job (including our police force)takes from each one and implement an outlet for these courageous men & women to vent/share/process their internal demons. For the sake of their own emotional health as well as the families that they are involved with.
Excellently written & I appreciate the little 'ad libs' at the end of each chapter. Well done!
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