Fire in the Belly

While life often makes us choose between following our dreams and finding a stable job, some of our own Anchorage firefighters have managed to carve out the best of both worlds, investing in their artistic endeavors while also enjoying a rewarding career. Firefighters respond to the worst moments in people's lives, dealing with situations many of us could never imagine and seeing images impossible to erase. Finding an outlet to quiet those images can be crucial. To be able to express themselves creatively, while continuing to serve their community, is truly inspiring.

The Writing Life

California born and bred, Bryan Fierro never thought he would end up in Alaska, much less as a firefighter. He started writing in high school, pursued a bachelor's degree in English in college, and was later accepted into the University of Alaska Anchorage's creative writing master's degree program, prompting a move to Alaska.  

"I always thought I would be a teacher," he said, "but the gravitational pull toward firefighting was too strong. I grew up in a family where public service was a big part of our lives. My grandmother instilled in me a desire to help others, and we often made trips to Los Angeles' skid row district to deliver clothing and food."

With a father in law enforcement and other family members who were firefighters, Fierro eventually decided to pursue paramedic school in Anchorage, getting hired on with the Anchorage Fire Department after working in Las Vegas for a few years. He's been with the department for eight years, currently at Station Seven in Jewel Lake.

"If I had to pin down what I like most about my job, it's the gratitude shown by the community," he said. "Everything slows down for me when a family stops by the station to thank us for helping them in their most emergent time of need. It is a reminder that what we do has effects that are long-lasting and life altering."

But even with a fulfilling career, the writing was always there. After dropping out of UAA's program due to the logistics of work and school, he completed his master of fine arts degree at Pacific University in Portland through a low-residency program. He went on to win the Poets and Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for fiction, had a screenplay selected for the Workers Unite Film Festival and was recently a recipient of a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award. His debut collection of short stories, Dodger Blue Will Fill Your Soul, will be released this fall through University of Arizona Press.

Fierro said that while his firefighting and writing don't directly intersect, his job is what keeps him paying attention to the world around him.

"Story is everywhere," he said. "I don't specifically write about my job, but that is not to say that the desire to tell specific narratives isn't generated daily by being out in the world in this way. The most challenging part of trying to do both well? Time."

Music and Muses

Matt Herman knew from an early age that a desk job wouldn't cut it, and wanted a career that would keep him moving.

"I wanted something that would be of service to the community, as well as something that would make it fun to go to work every day," he said. "I was hired by AFD in 1999 and I am currently a captain at Station One, downtown. I love the camaraderie of my job, the fact that no day is ever the same, and that we can be there to help people."

Herman's busy pace is punctuated by his love of music, which began when he was 15 years old. "A friend was selling a cheap guitar and I bought it. I got some old songbooks and started teaching myself chords," he said. "From there it was a natural progression to songwriting and singing."

His band, The Jack River Kings, formed in 2008, right after Herman had completed a solo album. They have performed around Alaska at various venues, as well as recording an album of their own.

"I really fell in love with the songwriting process, the musical process and the friendships you make with your bandmates," said Herman.

Trying to keep job, band and family together has proven to be a big task, and the band has been on hiatus for some time.  

"I got married in 2012 to my amazing wife and we now have two beautiful children," he said. "Between 24 hour shifts at the fire department and family life, it's been hard to make time for band practices or gigs."

Herman remains hopeful that the band will pick up again. "I know I miss it," he said. "I still have that creative side of me that I'm not getting to express right now, and I do want to work on writing more songs and improving as a musician. But right now, any free time I have these days seems to result in a nap!"

A Filmmaker's Focus

"I didn't really know what I was getting myself into when I decided to become a firefighter," said Kevin Morris, who has been with AFD for 18 years and works at Southport, Station 15.

"My friend Aaron Robinson and I were pretty wild kids, and we used to talk about being firefighters because we thought it would be a way to be wild and get paid at the same time," he said. "I didn't understand what a privilege the job is, from the level of professionalism displayed by the people I work with to giving back to the community that raised me."

Born and raised in Anchorage, Morris said he and his brother Sean grew up making movies.

"Star Wars came out and we were off," he said. "We would film outrageous stuff, things that would be YouTube worthy today, but we didn't have the venue back then."

As adults, Morris and his brother went on to make a documentary called Cast Alaska, an adventure film about fishing Alaska's backwaters for rainbow trout, which won the best documentary film award at the Mammoth Mountain Film Festival, as well as being picked up for distribution in both the U.S. and Canada. The Morris brothers also made a short film called Native Time, which won a Snow Dance Golden Oosik award at the 2010 Anchorage International Film Festival.

"I love how a movie starts as an idea and grows into something that stands alone, yet is also a conglomerate of so much and so many. The opportunity to create is pretty special," Morris said. Their newest documentary, Cast Alaska II, is currently in post-production.

Morris credits his job as a firefighter with his success in filmmaking. "The concept of Cast Alaska was actually hatched by a friend and co-worker of mine, Dave Holsman, who I worked with at Station Five. Dave and his wife Bobbi are the stars of the film, and if it weren't for my job as a firefighter, I'd never have met him," he said. "It's interesting how my creative life and work life intersect. I need the creativity to shut off the type A side of my brain and provide an outlet. It helps me cope.

This article was first published in 61°North – The Arts Issue. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com