Fighting the Fire

Bruce Messenger still remembers the fires he fought in his youth.

The 59-year-old volunteer firefighter remembers the buildings he ran into as they burned around him. He remembers the ceiling as it melted above him and flaming drops fell into his boots. He still hears the crackle of the walls as flames slowly ate them away.

Above all he remembers the smoke. The black clouds billowed from every fire he and his crew fought, barefaced and grinning, their chapped and blackened masks punctured only by the whites of their eyes and the flash of their smiles.

Today it’s not the fire, but the smoke that Messenger remembers. It’s the reason he stepped down as Hickman Rural Fire District’s chief. It’s the reason he can’t lift hoses or fight fires. It’s the reason he’s always tired.

For him, the smoke is the reason he’s been diagnosed with cancer three times in the past year and a half. It’s the reason he’ll receive chemotherapy for the rest of his life.

“We sucked smoke for a lot of years,” Messenger said. “It was stupid on our part.”

Hickman, Nebraska’s fire department is as modest as the district it serves. Twenty-five firefighters serve the three towns and 66 square miles less than 20 minutes south of Lincoln. The boxy fire house holds one of each necessary rescue vehicle.

Like all but six towns in Nebraska, Hickman relies on volunteers to staff its fire house. Unlike most volunteer departments, Hickman’s firefighters are compensated. Regardless of the circumstances, each firefighter receives five dollars per call.

When Messenger started in 1977, Hickman’s budget for the fire department was less than $40,000, just over $167,000 adjusted for inflation. Each volunteer was given a coat and boots, then shared two air packs with almost thirty firefighters.

Despite safer equipment and tactics, past conditions have taken a toll on firefighters across the United States. According to a 2016 study by the Center for Disease Control, firefighters are nine percent more likely to contract all forms of cancer, especially urinary, respiratory, oral and digestive.

Messenger sucked smoke for almost 40 years before he felt the consequences.

At three different points in 2016, Messenger was diagnosed with three different kinds of cancer. 

In the spring, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Within the month, they had removed his kidney.

In the summer, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Within the week, they had removed a portion of brain the size of a golf ball.

In the fall, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. No surgery this time, the tumors were inoperable. Instead, both as treatment and precaution, he would receive chemotherapy for the rest of his life.

“I don’t know that I can do it anymore,” Messenger said. “Fighting fires you always have a little extra adrenaline. I can probably use that, but if I did I’d probably go home and sleep for two days.”

Messenger regrets the decisions he made as a firefighter, but he doesn’t regret becoming a firefighter. If he could go back 40 years he wouldn’t change a thing, he said. He would sign up again for the people he’s saved.

“It’s those people living their life happy go lucky and next thing they know they’re in a disaster,” he said, “and I’m there to help.”