Monday, January 15, 2018

No Roots

Some of the people I work with were born here.  They went to school here, and if they left, they soon came back.  They can't imagine living anywhere else.  Their roots are deep in this place.

I don't know what that's like.  I've lived a lot of places, from Alaska to Hawaii and in between.  I've liked most of them, even loved some, but it was always easy to pack up and move on.  Back then you had to chase the jobs, so I got used to leaving.  My roots, like some trees', are shallow.

My friend B. was talking about where she wanted to move when her fire career was over.  She thinks Driggs, Idaho, would be nice.  But she doesn't know, either.  Maybe she will stay.

I like where I live well enough, although I wish some things were different (more sun in the winter would be nice, maybe a few less bears). 

Walking through the forest, you can't always tell which trees have deep roots and which have shallow ones.  They're all making the best of where their pine cone or acorn or seed landed, reaching up toward the sun.  Maybe that's the secret: it's not so much the place, but what you make of it.

This woman says it better than I can.  Sing it, Alice:

Monday, January 8, 2018

How to get a job on a fire crew

It's that time of year again.  Seasonal applicants are everywhere: on the phone, in email inboxes, and sometimes even appearing at offices, trying to do whatever they can to secure a summer position.  And why wouldn't they? It's a good way to pay for college, fund international travel, and maybe have some excitement.  However, some of them have no idea of how to go about it.  So for anyone who might be floundering, here are some tips.

Have a good application.  This might be surprising, but many people seem to have trouble with this.  They seem to have never heard of spell check.  They copy and paste from the official position description word-for-word.  They write so little that you wonder if they are in the witness protection program, or else they write a book that makes your eyes glaze over.  There are a lot of resources out there to help with resumes.  Use them!

Choose references carefully.  Some people would be really surprised with what their references say about them, for example, "we took the chainsaw away from her halfway through the summer and wouldn't let her use it anymore."  Also, if you put your dad or your brother, we probably won't take that seriously.  Former supervisor not going to give you a glowing reference? Be prepared to say how you've changed and learned from the experience.  Don't be the guy whose reference says, "Wow, I don't know why he put me down, I don't have anything good to say" (true story).

Very little fire experience? Not necessarily a deal breaker.  I always tell people I'm looking for someone who can get along with others, works hard, and has good initiative.  I can teach them the other stuff.  I can't teach someone how to be a nice guy or gal.  Experience working in the woods, running a chainsaw, growing up on a ranch? All good.

Call, but not too much.  On average I have 150 applicants for one position.  Calling can put a voice to a name, and I'll look for your application when I get my list.  Don't be a stalker, though! One guy called me at 8 am on a Sunday, and then called four more times.  Kind of creepy.  Email is even better.  Then I can answer all your questions, at a time that is convenient.  All these applicants ask for a call back, but that probably won't happen (note, 150 applicants).

Come by, but only if it works for your prospective supervisor.  One woman told the hotshot superintendent that she knew it was the weekend, but could he come into the office and show her around the base? No, no, just don't.  If you take the time to set up an appointment, we are happy to see your smiling face.

Be local.  If you already have a place to live, you're a hot commodity.  We don't have to worry about you bailing because you can't afford to live here, or miserably staying in your truck all summer.  If there's a local fire crew, think about applying there.

Don't be entitled.  Now is not the time to ask how much overtime you'll get, what your potential boss's qualifications are, be evasive when we ask if you've accepted another job (because you have and are playing the offers), or basically ask what the crew will do for you.  That will all come in time.  Besides, 150 applicants, remember?

Some of the best crewmembers I've hired had very little firefighting experience, but had glowing references, had worked hard at the ice cream parlor/family farm/logging crew.  They took the time to call and say how much they wanted the job.  They were enthusiastic and just happy to be considered.  Some of them have moved on to other things, but a few are still in fire, moving up into higher level positions.  I'm glad to say I gave them their start, and I'm so proud of them.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Firefighting: the aftermath

What do you do when it's over?

In my position, as with federal law enforcement jobs, you get the boot when you are 57.  Sure, you can try to go to another position, one not covered by our special retirement system, but those are increasingly hard to get.  Unless you've had the time and opportunity to work on other skills, there are people in those fields who will easily beat you out for any vacancy.

Fifty-seven seems like a long way off for young firefighters entering the system. "I'm going to retire as soon as I'm eligible," they often say.  If they got hired into a permanent job early, this can be younger than age 48. Fifty, tops, they declare.  It's easy to say, when the years seem long.

Some, the lucky retirees under the older, more favorable retirement system, or who have saved enough money, leave it all behind and happily go work in their wood shops, or ski on the weekdays.  They don't look back, and you rarely see them around.  They don't miss it: it's an important chapter of their lives, but only one chapter, and they are still writing the book.

Others can't quite let go.  They can't afford to, or can't bear to.  They sign up to fight fire as needed.  Some years, unfettered by office duties or subordinates, they make more money than regular employees.  They drift around the West, going from fire to fire.  You can tell the ones who really want to be there from the ones who think they have to be.  Some love fire; others just need to survive.

Some leave the fireline, but emerge in totally different areas.  They start a business, take a part time job, or begin a new career.  Sometimes they come around to the helibase or fire camp just to see what's going on.  They watch the hotshot buggies going down the road and the helicopters take off.  You can tell fire still has a hold on them.

I think when my time comes to leave, the hardest part will be letting go of who I used to be: the young woman, her waist-length hair in a French braid, hiking up a nameless burning mountain.  She has ash on her face and her fire pack is heavy, but she is laughing with her friends, looking forward to what comes next.

I don't know who the next woman I am is, the older one, the one who is no longer a firefighter.  She's waiting for me though, not too far down the road. I'll figure it out when I get there.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Please don't: Ski Hill Edition

When I first started going to the local ski area, I didn't know the etiquette. After all, I was (sort of) teaching myself how to snowboard as an adult.  I had never ridden a chairlift.  I didn't know that there was a separate "single" line on busy days for people by themselves.  And why were those ski instructors yelling "Pizza!" at the little kids they had in tow?

But I studied other people and read signs, and soon figured it out.  And now that I can shred the gnar make it down the hill most of the time without falling, I see that many people still don't know the rules of the hill.  So here's some gentle reminders.  Please don't:

Stop in the lift line to put on your snowboard or skis/wait for your friends/ask the lifty random questions.  Look, I'm not really in a hurry, but those Super Seniors behind me need to get their vertical, darn it! And if it's below zero, everyone behind you is freezing.

Stop right below the off ramp and have a conversation.  Some of us, ahem, aren't as good at turning immediately after getting off the lift and need a little more room.  Move to the side and chatter away.

Yell instructions from the lift.  You may think you are being really helpful to beginners by screaming, "Bend your knees!" However, because of neck warmers, scarves, and distance, it's hard to tell whether you are saying "bend your knees" or "I'm your niece." Also, sudden yells from the lift are distracting and might cause said beginner to lose their concentration and fall.

Ask if the stranger behind you in line will take your overflow kid with them on the lift.  Bonus points if you say the kid knows how to get off the lift when in fact, he does not, and sits there like a rock instead of standing up, causing you to lunge for him and pick him up, sending him safely down the ramp while you fall, looking like a fool in front of the lift attendant.

Stop in the middle of a run.  Snowboarders do this more than skiers, but some skiers are guilty too.  Make everybody, including lessons, swerve around you.  Subtract a point if you stopped because you fell/lost a ski/lost your phone.  Everybody understands.

Make fun of or get impatient with people.  It's really brave to try and learn something new.  You should admire those 70 year olds in ski lessons. And those adaptive skiers who slowed down the lift line the other day?  I saw them going over the jumps in the terrain park.  They're way better than you.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

I'm a certified personal trainer!

When I loaded up the Ford Escape to go on a fire assignment last July, I added in something extra along with my fire boots and yellow shirt: some personal trainer study materials. 

The books were sort of overwhelming.  The main manual was 700 pages long.  Another, an exercise science book, delved into intimidating anatomy material.  I sat in the meager shade of the Escape waiting for the helicopter to return from dropping water.  It was 100 degrees out.  A micromanaging deck coordinator made enthusiastic laps around the field, intent on finding somebody doing something wrong.  It wasn't the most conducive study environment.

Nevertheless, I persisted.  I peered at people, assessing their posture without their knowledge.  I forced coworkers to undergo mobility tests.  My books went everywhere, getting helicopter flights and road trips. 

Yesterday I entered the exam room nervously.  The Facebook study group I was in had many dire stories of people not passing, or saying how hard they thought the test was.  I could hear someone else clicking computer keys rapidly behind me.  She was taking the same exam.  What if I don't pass and she does? I thought.  

I clicked Submit Exam. After a stressful pause, my results appeared.  I had passed with a really high score! 

What's next? I don't know, besides torturing helping my crew by doing movement and flexibility screens.  Maybe some part time work, or something to do after I get kicked out of firefighting for being too old.  There's this though: there were moments I felt pretty doubtful.  College and studying was a long time ago, I thought.  These books are expensive.  I don't care that much about the digestive system.  But I kept going, because sometimes you should do what's new and maybe a little scary.  Learn something, take the trip, do the thing.  It's always worth it.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Show me the money (or not)

"I heard that the janitors at the Pentagon are the same pay grade as we are," my friend S. said.

I considered this.  "I could be a janitor at the Pentagon.  You probably get to work by yourself."

"You probably don't supervise anybody."

We sat in companionable silence.

"I cleaned the toilet in the hangar today," I said.

"I mopped the floor in my office," he said. 

We giggled.  It wasn't really funny though. Between us we have over fifty years fighting fire, leading others, and managing contracts, among other high risk duties.  Our base pay after all this time is less than people just starting out make in many fields.  A majority of the firefighters on the front lines saving people's property, and sometimes the people themselves, make less than $15 per hour, which is what a lot of employees want for working at fast food restaurants.

I don't know what the janitors actually make.  And look, clean toilets are important! We clean our own bathroom at my office.  We have one toilet for a minimum of 12 people in the summer months, so ignoring this basic task would quickly reduce the office to a level of unacceptable squalor.  But sometimes I wonder if people whose houses are threatened by fire know how little most wildland firefighters are paid (we aren't on the same pay scale or schedule as structural firefighters, by the way).  I wonder if they know that when they read about a firefighter killed on the fireline.

We chose to stay in this profession, so there are a lot of other reasons we are here.  Many people don't get paid to fly over national parks to look for fires, or see the actual physical results of their labor.  When you save a house or even just a hillside, you can look up there and say, I did that.  I was there.

And maybe there is some janitor at the Pentagon reading about firefighters.  "Dang," he says to his buddy.  "Those people who run helitack and hotshot crews make the same as we do! I should do THAT."

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Year round

People still seem surprised sometimes that I work all year.  "But it's winter," they say, "what do you DO?"

I usually say something about paperwork, training, and hiring, because that's most of it.  Hiring just one person for a 6 month seasonal position takes more paperwork than getting married does.  But here's something else: fire is taking less and less time off.

Due to climate change, fuel buildup in the forests, and more people building homes in the woods, fires are starting at times of the year they never used to, and getting bigger and badder. 

One of my employees is in California.  He is currently working on the LA fires, but he has been there for months.  Two others are going to Alabama and North Carolina this winter to fill critical positions.  Last February, some of them were out in Texas and Oklahoma on fires.  There isn't a month of the year that someone from my crew isn't on an assignment somewhere.

A week ago I saw smoke drifting through the trees in the park.  The fire that burned up there for most of the late summer and destroyed a historic chalet was still alive, despite weeks of rain and snow.  No threat anymore, it tenaciously hung on in cedar stumps and downed logs.  Nobody can really believe it.  It's December in the mountains, after all, but there it is.

The bears are starting to hibernate, but we aren't.  We don't unpack our gear anymore in October because you never know.  There is a fire somewhere, and we might need to go.
One of the LA fires. Photo courtesy ABC News.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

How to be annoying at the gym

I joined my first gym in 1991.  I KNOW, I'm so old! Since then, I've belonged to many of them: large, upscale ones, tiny one room places, university gyms, and of course the workplace ones with rickety benches and equipment procured from garage sales. 

The gym I belong to now is expensive, but it's only four miles from my house, so I keep renewing my membership.  It has more than one pool, and stuff I never use, like racquetball courts and a juice bar.  It is very popular, and it's not unusual to cruise the parking lot at 10 am on a weekday and find no open spaces (who are all these people without jobs?).  Even though it's very different from other gyms I've belonged to, some things remain the same.  By that, I mean obnoxious gym behavior.  Let's get to it, shall we?

Here's how to be a gym nuisance, in no particular order:

1.  Notice that there are many, many open treadmills.  Find the one with the person on it, and get on the one next to them.  Look over and see what speed they are running.  Put yours on the same speed.  Look over frequently.  When the person increases their speed, increase yours too, and then a little higher for good measure.  Stay on as long as they do, because everyone loves a little competition, right?

2.  Ask the person on the machine next to you for a date.  When they don't seem receptive, say something like, "I wasn't asking you to get married, I just thought we could have dinner or something," like they did something wrong by not wanting to date you  (This happened to me at a gym).

3.  Correct people's form when you're not a trainer and nobody asked you to.

4.  Locate your friend on an elliptical.  Come over and stand next to their machine and have a loud conversation. 

5.  Get on your cell phone and talk a lot.  Don't bother to go to the lobby.  You're too important for that.

6.  Drop your weights on the ground when you're not at a CrossFit gym.  Do it a lot.  Grunt loudly too.

7.  When the gym is busy, hog several weight machines.  Look annoyed if anyone else wants to work in.  Leave your stuff on the machines so people won't use them.  Sit on a machine and look at facebook or text.

8.   Don't ever clean off the equipment, because you're not that sweaty.

9.  Go to the gym with the flu or some other communicable disease.  Sneeze on and touch everything.

10.  Leave your weight plates on the barbells.  The gym has staff to put them away, don't they? While you're at it, leave towels and dumbbells lying around too.

What am I leaving out?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Brush jacket's back, all right!*

A hotshot named Chet strolled by.  I peered at him.  What was he wearing?

"The '90s called.  They want their brush jacket back!" I said. 

"I found a bunch of these in the sewing loft," Chet, who was too young to fight fire in the '90s, said happily.  "They're great!"

The brush jacket used to be standard issue, along with the green pants, yellow shirt, and hard hat.  Everybody wore one, often with the cold weather liner.  We didn't have nomex fleece then, or the prevalence of merino wool garments.  We couldn't wear anything synthetic because it would melt in a fire.  We had cotton hoodies, but we didn't want to get our own stuff dirty. The brush jackets weren't especially warm or water repellant, and you had to stay on the move, but we were glad to have them.
Katie is wearing a brush jacket here in 2001. Note the handy reflective trim.
I don't remember when or why people stopped wearing them.  I did too, opting to wear a thick cotton hoody under my fire shirt, or a nomex fleece jacket.  I kept my brush jacket though; it traveled along on several moves, a reminder of the national park fire crew where I wore it.

"Let's bring them back," I suggested to Chet.  He was on board.  Billy, one of my crewmembers, perked up when he heard the plan.  "I'm in!" he said, being old enough to remember wearing them.

Will we look nerdy, as if we were wearing the old "radio bra" harnesses that have also largely disappeared from the fireline? Maybe, but we'll be having fun.  Some things should stay in the past: gaucho pants, mullets, and soul patches, to name a few.  But old school brush jackets? Just maybe we will start a new trend.

*Is "Everybody" by the Backstreet Boys stuck in your head now? You're welcome.

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.