Jaired Heinrichs was 14 when he got burned.
He was home in the small Canadian village of Rosengart, Manitoba, about a mile from the border with North Dakota, setting fire to a pile of wet leaves outside. Growing impatient at the slow pace of the burn, Heinrichs went to the garage and filled a jug with “that much gas,” he said, holding his fingers about an inch apart.
Heinrichs poured the gas on the burning leaves, and flames exploded. They ran up his right arm, setting his short-sleeve cotton shirt on fire. The flames reached his collar, leaving scars on his chest and neck up to his chin.
Heinrichs, now 17, recounted his story to fellow campers this week at International Burn Camp in Maryland.
Forty-four burn survivors from the United States and Canada gathered for a stay sponsored by the International Association of Fire Fighters, which paired a firefighter as a mentor to each of the teens at Camp Wabanna in Edgewater, about 35 miles east of Washington near the Chesapeake Bay. The campers each brought a counselor from their local burn camp.
Telling burn stories — how the accident happened and where the scars remain — was the go-to conversation starter at camp, said Jordyn Bennett, a 16-year-old from Tampa.
“That’s always the first question people ask, just to get it out of the way,” said Bennett, whose legs got burned by a hot pipe on a motorcycle. “Then you can continue on, having a normal conversation.”
Campers visited the Smithsonian Institution, toured the Naval Academy in Annapolis and took part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. “We’re moving 12 hours a day,” said IAFF burn coordinator Tom Flamm, who organized the camp.
Throughout the week, campers connected over their common bond. They shared mechanisms for coping with the whispers and stares that follow them when they wear shorts or short-sleeve shirts in public.
“I’ve realized that they’re just curious and they weren’t staring at me because I was ugly or anything,” Bennett said.
Bennett’s counselor, Stacy Fleming, said some younger campers at the burn camp in Tampa wear pants in 90-degree weather to hide their scars, or wear long-sleeve shirts when they go swimming.
Burn camps, both local and international, teach campers to be comfortable in these situations.
“It’s a matter of instilling a confidence that you’re accepted no matter who you are,” said Stephen Judge, a firefighter and counselor at Heinrichs’s local camp who came with him for the week. “There’s a very large diversity of backgrounds here. And everybody’s accepted and welcomed and treated equally, no matter what their burn situation is.”
The reminder that there are people all over the world experiencing similar things, and the chance to talk peer-to-peer without being singled out as different, help many campers gain resilience, Judge said.
“Just because you’re burned, it hasn’t changed anything that you are or do,” Flamm said. “And it doesn’t mean that you have to lower yourself or lower your self-esteem.”
Other than his appearance, little has changed for Heinrichs since he was burned, he said. He still wants to be a heavy-duty diesel mechanic. He wants to go to Assiniboine Community College, a few hours away from his house. And he wants to find work close to home, where it’s rural and familiar.
“We’re normal people, just like everybody else,” Heinrichs said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people and they wonder how I can work with the way I am. I’m the same person on the inside as I was before my accident. There’s nothing that’s changed, just my outward appearance.”
Near the end of the week, the teens and counselors packed the camp gym for a carnival. They played cornhole, Jenga and an inflatable adult-sized Hungry Hungry Hippos game.
The sugary scent of funnel cake spread through the room as the kids bounced from one activity to another — just like any other camp.