A Burning Desire 

Zac Unger enters in a blaze of words.

Got a house on fire? Want to talk about great literature, falconry, and range management? Then Zac Unger is your man.

Berkeley-bred Unger has been an Oakland firefighter since 1998. He had entirely other careers in mind during the years he spent as an undergrad at Brown University and then as a grad student at Cal. But after a series of what he calls "brutally cold and lonely jobs" -- including a gig at the city dump -- a fire-department help-wanted ad he spotted at a bus stop changed everything. His new memoir, Working Fire, is an eloquently frank insider's view of days that lurch back and forth from total boredom to the razor's edge between life and death.

"A house on fire is one of the most chaotic scenes imaginable," says Unger, who will read from the book Thursday at the Lafayette Public Library. "The fire that's inside a burning building has no familial relation to that cozy little thing you roast marshmallows on. I've never met anything less friendly than fire. Inside, the heat manhandles you to the floor and the smoke blinds and disorients you. But the flip side is that it dissipates quickly and completely, and there's no greater feeling of relief than when the heat lets up enough so that you can get to your knees and breathe again."

Unger minces no words about those who abuse the system by calling 911 for every little hangnail or doing dumb things that throw themselves and others into needless peril. Nevertheless, every fire must be fought.

"Until we prove otherwise, there is always a kid hiding in a closet or an elderly person trapped in a bedroom," he says. "We fight fire aggressively because of this "maybe.' Afterwards you might kick yourself for putting yourself at risk for something that wasn't worth it, but in the moment you have to treat everything as legitimately worth risking yourself for."

An Ivy Leaguer isn't exactly everyone's idea of a typical firefighter. Nor is it the typical firefighter's idea of a typical firefighter. Unger's book makes no bones about the gibes and barbs he exchanges with co-workers, but no harm done.

"The thing about the fire department is that you're going to take a beating no matter what -- it's part of the culture of the department," he says. "It used to be my hair, or the car I drive. Now, by writing the book, I've just provided people with new and better ammunition to use against me. For the most part, though, I've tried to portray the department honestly. Some of us are saints and some of us are bastards and most of us are somewhere in between, just like anybody else. My co-workers see that it's predominantly accurate and they like the fact that the book has brought them some notoriety and recognition."

These days Unger is working on a novel about a small-town fire chief. "Writing fiction is daunting, though. I think memoir is probably the easiest form because it requires nothing more than plumbing the depths of your own mind to uncover the ways in which you think you're great."

Unger will be at the library, 952 Moraga Road, Lafayette, at 7:30 p.m. this Thursday. Call 925-283-3872 for further details.

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