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First in the Fire

Photos by Matt Haas

May 2015

Wayne Mutza was born a "wild child," which led him to serve with the U.S. Army in Vietnam followed by a long career as a Milwaukee firefighter. "That wild spirit was still in me, having done a lot of exciting, crazy things," Mutza says. "I needed to keep my hair in the wind."

Mutzaís firefighting experience is the subject of his memoir, "The Flame Within," which was published in the summer of 2013. "I wanted to increase public awareness about the job," Mutza says. "Itís an inside look at not only the rescuer, but the rescued, the people that we helped, the people that made the call."

Mutza experienced both perspectives in his 17 years as a first responder, saving many lives and being saved himself in 1987. "I was on top of a burning building on a hot summer day. It was a rapidly moving arson fire, which quickly engulfed the building. Things were bad. We were slipping on hot tar. Flames were coming through the roof."

While trying to rescue someone he spotted on the roof, Mutza fell into an airshaft and was hanging on to life by his fingertips. "I was out of strength, out of ideas and ready to drop, but two guys (firefighters) came up and got me. They put me on the aerial ladder, and shortly after that, the whole roof collapsed."

A lung condition that worsened over time forced Mutza to retire in 1993. Then, he began yet another career, as an author.

While being interviewed for a book on military helicopters used in Vietnam (Mutza was part of a helicopter crew during his tour of duty), he decided to pursue a lifelong passion for writing and penned his own work on the subject. Mutza has now written 25 books, most of them on the military, but it was only two years ago when he decided to tell his own story.

"I put it off a long time," Mutza says. "But once I decided to do it, my memory banks lit up." Mutza finished the book in just six months. It was reviewed favorably and is still selling "reasonably well."

Mutza says the book has given his family an "idea of who I was" and says a friend has told him that "anybody can read this book and see themselves in it."

Mutza has taught fire science at MATC and the National Fire Academy and conducted writing seminars across Wisconsin.

He is working on a premise for his first novel about a soldier reluctant to go to war and is also gathering information for books on the history of fireboats and air rescue.

Mutza, who faced live combat in Vietnam and many dangerous fire emergencies, has lived to tell his tale, and many others. "Iím here," Mutza says. "So Iím lucky."

This story ran in the May 2015 issue of: