One of the first things you learn after you develop your powers and decide to go superhero is how little one person can do in the face of large events -- natural disasters and such -- even a powered person. My wake-up was a huge brush fire in the hills above Malibu, before I moved to New York the first time.
It was early October and the Santa Anas were blowing like mad, and, as always, we'd had about a thimble full of rain since February. The hills from the 405 all the way to Ventura were basically a giant tinderbox. As with most of these, the cause was unknown, but within ten hours the flames were threatening about 50 homes. At first I canvassed the neighborhood at near-top speed, crashing through windows and zipping through homes, making certain everyone was evacuated. I didn't find any people, but I got two cats out of harm's way (a side note here: I simply cannot understand or abide people who evacuate from dangerous situations and leave their pets behind -- these are lives for which you are responsible, asshats!).
After the canvas, I tried to help run hose for the firefighters, but what they do is precision team work and, despite my strength and speed, I was hurting more than helping. I'm not strong enough to carry enough water to make much of a difference against a fire that size, on the ground or in the air, and while I can work a heck of a lot faster and longer than an average man (or team of men, for that matter), I can't dig trenches any faster than a single back-hoe.
I spent the bulk of my time carting water and supplies to groups of firefighters along the line. I had this big makeshift sling over my shoulder, loaded with water bottles and granola bars and first-aid supplies. Most of the time I was running or flying pretty fast, but whenever I had to slow down to drop stuff to the firefighters, or pick stuff up from the supply trucks, I felt embarrassed. There I was, sweating through these ridiculous clothes (it was the mid 1990s, so it was my first costume -- the one with the bright yellow belts and an unbelievable number of pouches and pockets pretty much wherever they fit), able to run 200 miles an hour, to lift over 2,000 pounds straight up over my head, to discharge near-lethal amounts of energy from my fingertips, to fly, for chrissakes, and my best contribution to the effort was basically playing water-boy to the truly heroic people who were fighting the fire with little more than courage and a few hoses. I felt silly, and helpless and, well, useless. What I certainly did not feel was super.
After racing up and down he line and occasionally flying to points on the far side for about 5 hours, I was leaning against one of the supply trucks, downing water and getting my sling loaded up with more support materials, when I heard a loud thump from the other side of the truck, like an elephant flopping over on his side. I wandered around the truck, water bottle in hand, pit stains down to my waist, my face black with smoke and ash, and I saw him talking to the truck driver. It was Simon Williams -- Wonderman.
Simon Williams is a big, big dude. He's not much taller than me -- maybe no taller (I'm 6'2"). But where I'm like 200 pounds, give or take, this guy is built like a friggin' tank -- he's carrying more muscle than the entire 49ers defensive line. I know -- they're not exactly killers, but that's still a lot of muscle for one guy. He's gotta be at least 400 pounds. I'm serious. And his eyes, glowing bright and red in the pre-dawn, smoke-filled grey, were deadly serious. I stopped in my tracks, water bottle halfway to my lips, feeling like I should bolt, afraid to move for fear he'd notice me, see how ridiculous I was, joke later with Captain America and Hank Pym and Iron Man and Wasp about this ridiculous little almost-superhero who was dressed-up like a walking 7-11 while Malibu burned. I was suddenly aware that my breathing sounded like a pipe organ, and stopped. My ears popped, and immediately I could hear their exchange:
"Is there anything I can do?" Simon asked the driver.
"I guess you should talk to the chief," the driver replied.
"I'm sure he's busy," said Simon.
"Well, can you blow out the flames with your freezing breath?"
Simon smiled slightly. "Um, no. I don't actually have freezing breath. Or, any breath, for that matter."
The driver looked startled. "You don't breathe?"
Simon shook his head. "No. It doesn't matter. The point is I haven't freezing breath."
"I don't know then," the driver shrugged. "What can you do?"
I was flabbergasted. This was Wonderman, in costume, and the truck driver had no idea who he was. He was an Avenger, for chrissake. And an actor. He'd been in like a hundred movies. He'd even been a West Coast Avenger, right here in L.A., back when that group was together. He could lift like 100 tons. He could punch a mountain to death. And he was made of some radioactive shit or something. And this guy just had no idea.
Simon didn't seem to care. "I'm pretty strong, and fast. Fire doesn't hurt me, or at least it doesn't do any real damage unless I'm in it for a long time. And I can fly."
The driver lifted his hand and pointed at me, and I realized that I'd forgotten to hide. Also to breathe. Startled, I let out an embarrassing rush of air, almost a burp, and gasped to fill my lungs. Then I started to cough from the smoke.
"The horse-shoe guy is taking supplies to the men, so the trucks don't hafta risk it."
Simon looked at me with his glowing red eyes. As my coughing fit ended, I moved to cover my mouth, and spilled water from the half-full bottle down the front of my uniform. He walked over to me, and extended his hand. I switched my bottle to my left hand, wiped my right on my leg, and took it.
"Providence," I croaked. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Williams."
He nodded. "My friend Veronica was telling me she'd seen you on the news. Rounding-up a group of vandals or something."
"Yeah. That was me."
He nodded again, and turned to look at the fire. Even from the ground, in the center of the line, you could tell it was still growing, that it was utterly out of control. After a moment he turned back to me.
"So," he said, "you got another one of those slings?"
We spent the next 18 hours taking care of the firefighters up and down the line, carting them back to camp so they could rest, carrying fresh men out, and bringing supplies wherever they were needed. Wonderman carried one of the trucks up to the top of a hill, so he could get gear to the guys on the far side of the line even faster. I did manage to snag one firefighter who'd gotten trapped when the flames jumped over his position and surrounded him. Simon saved two guys who'd been pinned under a fallen tree. By nightfall the fire was 40% contained, and I grabbed a couple of hours of sleep in one of the trucks while Simon continued our work.
In the end only one house was damaged, and no one was killed or even seriously hurt. Before he flew off, Simon shook my hand and smiled. "Pleasure working with you," he said.
The fire had burned almost 3,000 acres. 260 firefighters with thousands of gallons of water had stopped it. Wonderman and I had done something that couldn't have been done by any two other men, but we hadn't been able to do anything about the fire and, had we not been there, other people in trucks and helicopters would have done the same job -- maybe not as quickly or efficiently, but they'd have done it. Still, I didn't feel ashamed of my role anymore. I'd done what I could, what I knew how to do, just like everyone else there. But if the people of Malibu had had to choose that day between one (or even two) superheroes and 260 regular people trained to fight fires, they would have chosen the firefighters. And they would have been right. Superheroes can't do everything -- we fight criminals. Firefighters fight fires.