I choose to work in the high-risk profession of firefighting. But there is so much I love about firefighting that If I were to list all the things I love I'm not sure what I would put at the top. It depends. It depends on what stage of the fire. During initial attack, at the start of the fire, it's all adrenalin and sharp senses. It's making order out of chaos, everyone pitching in to tame his or her part of the beast. And if we catch it quick, get that line around it and tied in, it's at once a rush and a relief.
I like big, “project” fires, too. The ones that last for several days or even weeks. On big fires everything is magnified. So many more people, crews, engines, bull dozers, helicopters. Fire camps resembling small cities with showers, laundry service, medical unit, caterer, commissary, a place to drop letters (more likely a post-card with a short scrawl "I love you, I miss you, I'm being safe."). Tents of every color stretching across the fields the government has “rented” from a local farmer or rancher. The ever-present drone of the generators. The long lines of port-a-johns, standing side by side like sentinels on duty.
These big fires also serve as reunions. It still amazes me how many people I know on fires no matter if I'm in Montana, Florida, Oregon, Arizona, or California. And it's a special treat to bump into someone to whom I felt especially close on a previous fire. From an "oh shit" hasty retreat shared together to days after day of mop-up and patrol where we had time to talk and laugh and get to know each other. The guy who worked on a BLM engine on my strike team on the Rodeo-Chediski in fire in Arizona back in 2002 who is now assigned to my division in Utah, 2007. The Lewis and Clark Hotshot who worked on the same engine crew as my husband back in Montana in the mid-nineties. The handsome Native American division supervisor who had all the females on my crew swooning in Oregon in 1994, and who I saw again in New Mexico in 1998. I was actually a little embarrassed when he remembered me because I know I must have acted foolish the first time. I have become life-long close friends with people I've only spent 14 days with. I really love that.
There's something about the shared experience of fighting fires that binds us. We are away from our loved ones a lot, and these people standing next to us in the ash and dirt and heat become each others' families for those several days. We tell each other our dreams and heartaches. I've heard tales of marriages on the rocks, sorrow over dead parents, the heartache of missing birthdays year after year, a wife who ran off with traveling salesman (really). Sometimes we laugh so hard Gatorade come sout of our noses and our stomachs hurt. We play pranks on each other when the action is slow. We cuss and get frustrated when we think things should be done differently. We commiserate when the fire blows across the section of fireline on which we just busted our asses constructing.
There are moments that move me, sometimes to tears. The helitack firefighter who told me she slept on the mountain with the bodies of her dead crewmembers because she didn't want them to be alone that night. The task force leader who wondered if his marriage would make it through fire season, if he would someday go home after a fire to an empty house. The grizzled, 50-something contract water tender driver who, after he read the performance rating I did for him, said it was the nicest thing anyone ever said about him in his entire life. Those moments stay with me.
I do dislike few things about fighting fire; stupid decisions by the high-ups from the comfort of their offices, poison oak and chiggers, and the occasional asshole. But the thing I dislike most is the constant, persistent discomfort. Not my achy legs and my sore feet, not the chafing from my fire pack straps, not the bad food, or even the hard ground night after night. Not the stench coming from my own body. It's the niggling fear I might kill someone. OK, not kill someone, but do something (or not do something) that results in a firefighter getting hurt or worse. It’s not a looming, overwhelming fear, but a constant low hum. White noise.
When I was a low-on-the-totem-pole crewmember I was in bliss. Someone told me what to do, I did it. I was told when to eat, when to sleep, when to sign my time sheet, where to hike, where to dig fire line, where to throw brush, where to spray water. My digestion system was happy and regular. I worked so hard I could eat anything I wanted. And at the end of every shift I would crawl into my sleeping bag and sleep like the innocent, deeply and untroubled.
When I became a Crew Boss that started changing. I felt the staggering weight of responsibility for 19 other people. Now I was the one who told people where to hike, where to dig, where to throw brush. I scouted the fire and timed our escape routes to the safety zones. I worried about the weather and what the other crews were doing on the neighboring stretches of fireline. I carried around a cold fist in the pit of my stomach. I slept poorly. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still loved it, still enjoyed it. I had fun, took pride in accomplishing work assignments, reveled in the physical challenge, laughed and told jokes, made some good decisions, made a few bad decisions, and learned, learned, learned every single day.
Now I'm a Division Supervisor. The responsibility has grown. As a division sup, I'm in charge of a chunk of fireline and all the people that go with it. Often a lot more than 19. I love the challenge of figuring out what to do tactically to stop the fire or keep it in check. What strategies to use to achieve the objectives. Which engines and crews to put where. How many helicopters to utilize. But that cold fist in my belly is always there. Reminding me that I’m human, that fire cannot always be tamed or bossed around. That the wind will blow. Firelines will fail. Humans will make mistakes. Those nights of crawling into my sleeping bag and sleeping deeply are over. I don't sleep well from the first night I arrive on a fire to the last. And that's not ideal. Sleep is essential to making good decisions. Fatigue can get people hurt. It’s a horrible cycle. So I pop a couple of Advil PMs to get me through the night. And every night, as blessed, chemically induced sleep gathers me in her embrace, I say a little prayer to the God I don’t always acknowledge. "Don't let me fuck up so badly that someone gets hurt." Amen.