Wednesday, November 15, 2017

All over the map

Interesting places I've lived because of my job:
  • A travel trailer in the California desert
  • A log cabin built by a Cub Scout and his dad, with a stream for water and a hollow tree stump for an outhouse
  • A park service ranger station in Arizona two hours away from any type of store
  • A tent in a campground in Washington, for two summers
  • A rented room in a house that was paid for by one pot crop ( I learned this later)
  • Various bunkhouses
  • A former one room schoolhouse in South Dakota
I hear people say things like "I could never live in..." fill in the blank: a big city, small town, arctic climate, etc.  This isn't really the truth.  Of course, they physically could; they just might not like it, or thrive there, or just maybe they would surprise themselves and be okay with it. 

I moved a lot, and to places I thought I would never consider.  I had to, because there weren't a lot of seasonal jobs available in the most desirable locations, and certainly no permanent jobs.  I lived in remote outposts and in one big city (Honolulu), and in more than one place where I drove up, looked around, and thought, what have I done?

Still, I adapted, everywhere I went, and it makes me curious every time I go to a new place.  What would it be like to live here? I think.  Sometimes my initial impression, especially in a large city, is how hard it would be.  So many people! So much traffic! But then I think, public transportation. Lakes with running trails.  Inexpensive gyms.  Maybe this wouldn't be terrible.

I'll probably always be a country mouse rather than a city one.  I'll always prefer mountains to flat landscapes.  I probably won't live in any more trailers or tents.  But because I did it, and found the good, hidden things in all those places, I know I could.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Dry Needling: I tried it

The physical therapist frowned at my arm.  "This muscle is like parachute cord. It's all knotted up!" he said.  "And your arm isn't straight."

I first felt a twinge in my right arm a few years ago.  A fire was threatening to escape the boundaries of a prescribed burn, so I industriously pulled a charged section of inch and a half hose down the line to catch it.  The burn didn't get away, but afterward my elbow and forearm hurt.

Hmm, I thought, but as someone who doesn't normally get injured, I ignored it.  This seemed to be a good strategy at the time, because the pain went away.  Sometimes I would feel it when I did biceps curls, but a couple days of rest always seemed to cure it, until one fateful day.

An enterprising hotshot created a workout machine where the exerciser pulled a heavy rope (with the option to attach weights) using several different stances and techniques.  Really feeling the burn, I thought, as I pulled enthusiastically.  And I was, but not in a good way.  Attack of the tennis elbow with a vengeance!

In the following weeks and then months, I was heard to say "Ow! ow!" while doing the following innocuous things:  lifting a backpack, opening a door, and basically anything that involved a gripping motion.  But wildfire doesn't stop for lateral epicondylitis, and I found myself hauling heavy things, using tools, and feeling intense pain for much of the season.

Eventually I landed at the physical therapist's office.  Weeks of rest and an arm band, plus weirdly lifting weights with only one arm, hadn't really helped.  My employee raved about dry needling.  "I only had to go once and it cured my tennis elbow!" he declared.

While dry needling might sound and even look like acupuncture, it isn't the same thing.  It's not based on traditional Chinese medicine but instead is intended to stimulate muscle trigger points, areas that are knotted and contracted as a response to injury. It's supposed to help release the knot and muscle tightness or stiffness.  (It's called "dry" because nothing is injected with the needle, like a steroid).

I eyed some large needles.  "Oh, those are the ones for backs and butts!" the therapist said cheerfully.  The ones he used for my elbow are thin and feel like getting blood drawn when they are inserted.  But when the needle hits the trigger point, it causes an involuntary twitch and hurts a lot, not gonna lie.  It's over quickly though.

Does it work? I think so. I've gone three times now, and I'm back to lifting light weights with my affected arm. The pain no longer radiates down my arm.  I can't feel the knots anymore that the therapist showed me.  But it hasn't been a miracle cure, and it's still going to be awhile to be 100% better.  I have to stretch my forearm several times a day, and I bought a contraption called a  Theraband Flexbar to exercise with (it's on Amazon, if you're in need of one).

I'll report back in a couple of weeks after my last appointment. In the meantime, has anyone reading tried dry needling? What did you think?


Saturday, October 28, 2017


National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255.
Please talk to somebody.
 You're not alone.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Still at it

The day the helicopter flies away is sort of bittersweet.  On one hand, it means the season is pretty much over, and there's time to relax, wander a little farther from the base, and stop wearing fire pants every day.  Still, I'm always kind of sad, because we like our pilots and mechanics, and because our reason for being a helicopter crew just left.

Two minions and I sat in the office trailer, doing tedious paperwork.  We noticed the wind picking up (it's hard not to when your office is a singlewide trailer).  Chatter on the radio ensued.  Trees were falling all over the valley, downing powerlines.  Several small fires broke out from the sparks and from misguided private debris burns.  One quickly expanded to 40 acres.

We gathered our gear and went to help.  This time of year, fires aren't as stubborn; with shorter days, cooler nights, and recent rainfall, it was easy to extinguish stray embers.  An ATV with a water tank arrived to help, so we made short work of it, eyeing the trees as 40 mile an hour winds buffeted them. Two large green firs cracked loudly and crashed to the ground nearby. Not wanting to be underneath the next one, we grabbed our tools and got to stepping.

Today it's raining, and snow levels are expected to fall.  That's what firefighting is like in the mountains.  One day you're chasing fire, and the next day you're hiding from the storm.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Visiting my spirit animal

The road through the park is closed, partly for the fire but also for construction.  Winter would soon close it anyway.  I drive it, to check on the fire and to make sure a helicopter landing site is clear. 

It's strange, being on this road with nobody on it.  The construction crews don't work on weekends, and the fire crews are working on unwrapping structures, so no vehicles pass.  In the summers, it can take hours to drive the entire road, and parking spaces at the visitor center at the summit sometimes fill by 8:30 am.  Now it is deserted and filled with yellow aspen leaves.
 I imagine that the wildlife is breathing a sigh of relief to have the park back. Two black bears, a sow and cub, stand in the road.  They move unconcernedly into the brush, where the cub climbs a tree and retrieves a small carcass, a marmot perhaps, leaving me to wonder how it got there: did they stash it? did an eagle drop it? They eat, their teeth loudly breaking bones. 

Further along, mountain goats cling to the cliffs.  A young one jumps around, not bothered by the falling snow.  Their white fur is long and thick for winter. 

A lot of people would think that if I could be an animal, I would be a cat.  There's a lot of truth to this; I've been called "curious kitty" more than once.  But as much as I love cats, the mountain goat would be my choice.  I want to climb to the peaks and the high lonely meadows where they live, and scramble fearlessly on granite cliffs.  I know they don't think as we do, but I like to imagine they see the beauty all around them.

Snow falls and I retreat lower, down to the fire still smoking in the rain.  High above, the bears and goats move through the late afternoon, waiting for the silence of winter.

Sunday, October 1, 2017


Snap (or Slap) tember has drawn to a close, and Octoverit has begun! 

Even if you didn't have a calendar, there are ways you would know this month is finally here:

The minions start to flee, even if there is work available.  One is in school, a series of rabies shots behind him and a resolve to avoid all skunks in the future newly adopted.  The others are busy making plans that don't include digging hose and pumps out of the snow on the local fire.

 The end of season sniffles have made an appearance.  The person who first appeared stricken is widely referred to as "patient zero" and "carrier monkey," but close quarters take their toll, and eventually everyone falls victim. 

Things start to fall apart.  D. fixes his torn pants with duct tape, hoping to make it through another couple weeks.  The plumbing at the base fails, leaving us without running water and bathrooms, relegating everyone to porta potties.  The codes we are supposed to charge our time to don't work.  People's computers won't connect to the internet.  It's as if the universe is telling us fire season should be over.

Surliness resurges.  "We're living in squalor!" I've been known to yell, prompting a frenzied bout of cleaning.  "This is why we can't have nice things," a minion sighs after something breaks.  We engage in armchair speculation while listening to radio transmissions:  what is that crew DOING? what are they THINKING?

Weather forecasts vary widely. It's going to rain! No, it's going to snow 3 inches! Wait, no, it's going to be 60 and sunny.  We don't trust any of it.  This time of year, it could go either way.  If you don't bring a puffy jacket, a raincoat, and running shorts to work, you must be a rookie.

"Octoverit," we mutter, walking to morning briefing in the dark.  But the snowline creeps lower on the mountains ever day, and we know it'll be done soon.  And even if we want it to end, when we are deep into winter, we will sort of miss it.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Hello Snaptember!

 You managed to hold it together for Dirty August, the month where you're working all the time, the fires just won't stop, and you've seen the same people's faces every day.  You thought you were in the clear, that the glide into September would be trouble-free and easy.  But no...Snaptember is here!

This is the month when even the nicest firefighters can lose it.  You're sick of everybody.  The sound of a crewmember's typing on the keyboard drives you nuts.  The air support group supervisor won't leave you alone.  Everything in the fire lunch looks awful.  Nobody better ask you a question.

You don't REALLY hate everybody.  You're not really sick of your job.  But when you're sleep deprived, getting rained on, not able to make it to the gym, and around the same people fourteen hours a day, every first world problem seems insurmountable.  It's all you can do to keep Snaptember from turning into SLAPtember.

Luckily, after many seasons, you know it can't last.  It finally snows in the mountains.  Fires start releasing people.  It's bound to end at some point. 

Unless, of course, it doesn't, and that's when Snaptember turns into Octoverit....

(to be continued)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

What I'll miss

As I near the end of my career as a wildland firefighter, my thoughts are scattered like smoke drifting through the forest. Sometimes I just want to be done, to put my boots and my constant state of readiness up on a shelf for good.  I want to have summer, and spring and fall, without having to go away or have a bag packed to go away.  I want to see fire for what it is: a force of nature like a hurricane or a flood, not something to be fought or managed.

But this life isn't going to let go of me so easily.  I get out of the helicopter at sunset and think, how can I leave this?

I'll miss seeing fire run across the landscape like it's alive, like it was meant to.
A fire last week in the wilderness
I'll miss seeing wild, lonely places where almost nobody goes.
I'll miss the small fires with one or two people, nothing needed but your pulaski and chainsaw to contain it, and then wrapping up in a sleeping bag under the stars on a high unnamed ridge.
I'll miss my tribe.  I've spent so many days and nights with them, flying in the mountains, hiking over hills, dragging tools through the dirt, chasing fire.  I'll miss them most of all.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

smoke and sorrow

I don't want to see your house burn.  I've seen it before, and it is a beautiful and terrible thing, the flames almost seeming alive as they climb the walls and curl around the windows.  Don't be mistaken: even if we call your home a "structure" or even fuel for a fire, it hurts our hearts if we can't save it.

Two weeks ago I flew to a historic chalet in the park to evacuate guests and take out belongings and gear for the staff.  The building stood in this wild and lonely spot since 1913, providing a rustic place to sleep for anyone lucky enough to reserve a space.  This year it sold out in about five minutes.  The pilot and I wandered through the chalet, picking out which rooms we would want to stay in.  The fire was a long ways off,  creeping around in the next drainage.  Maybe it would never get there.

But it didn't rain.  The weather stayed hot and dry for the next two weeks, and the winds increased, pushing the fire up the mountain.  The firefighters made their stand one night against an ember shower, running hoses and sprinklers in a desperate fight.  Four helicopters dropped water, but in the end the chalet caught fire and lit up the night like a giant candle.  It was gone in an hour.

There is a deep sadness here;  so many of us remember hiking to this spot and seeing the chalet finally appear after several miles of steep trail.  It was a place loved by people throughout the world.  It was only a building, but it was full of over a hundred years of memories.

Still, everyone is safe.  The firefighters were able to save the other buildings and they were uninjured in the firefight.  Perhaps the chalet will be rebuilt someday.  Until then, I'm grateful I got to visit it, both on foot and by air.  Now we continue the fight.  There are houses and people still in harm's way.  We will do everything we can to keep the fires from their doors.

My last view of the chalet

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Ops normal

...well, as normal as they can be when you're working over 50 extra hours a week and the air is full of smoke.

The minions are hanging in there, although Dirty August is about to turn into Snaptember.  A building boom ensues, with a saw bench and crash rescue box being constructed. T. builds a contemplation bench for the arboretum.  With so many of us here due to the extreme fire danger, our garden gets unprecedented attention, and I wander around eating cherry tomatoes off the plants.  The clerks at the local store look bemused as we buy ice cream, chips, and chocolate.  We eat these things until someone declares that they want a salad, kicking off a round of healthy eating.

At fire camp, C. is bitten by a skunk as he compassionately takes a beer can off its head; he begins a series of rabies shots.  A new t-shirt design is conceptualized, puzzlingly involving a pterodactyl.  T. gets in some saw practice, learning the keyhole cut.  J. attempts to plan winter travel, but gets stymied by how many countries there are in Central and South America: he wants to see them all.  We are able to exercise a little; there is bear scat on the running trails.

It stays hot and dry.  New fires start.  Old ones roar back to life, causing evacuations and residents to grumble about air quality.  We do the best we can, but we have had almost no rain since June and resources are limited. Still, it always ends.  Flying along the lake, I see a single yellow larch tree.  It's an outlier: its neighbors' needles won't turn for weeks yet.  But they will.

So we work, while other people hike and float around in boats.  We don't complain, because it's what we signed up for.  For some of us, it's just what we know, while the new people are still trying to figure out if it's what they want.  Fall is around the corner, but for now we are here, flying and hiking these hills, following the smoke.