Sunday, October 30, 2011

staying the course

People often ask me how I got started firefighting. In school, I hardly seemed the type. I was skinny and weak, scared of the dodgeball, and terrified of the mean girls who stalked the halls looking for victims. It's not a hard question to answer. What I find far more interesting is why I stayed.

Geskakmina Fire, Alaska

You can usually tell the people in fire who aren't in it for the long haul. They will say they are in it for the money, or the adventure. The ones who are in it for the money won't make it past the lean seasons, the summers when you barely scrape together 100 hours of overtime, when the helicopter sits in the grass for days without turning a rotor. Plenty of jobs pay better than this,without taking such a toll on your lungs, your knees, your relationship. "I can make lots more sitting in a truck riding backwards," one of my seasonal employees told me as he fled to a city fire department with its predictable schedule and health benefits.

Lonely Fire, Grand Canyon

The ones looking for adventure last a little longer. These are the people who volunteer first for every assignment, who move from place to place each fire season, chasing adrenaline. Eventually most of them burn out, defeated by the bureaucracy, the piles of paperwork, and the days of cutting through endless thinning units. These are the same ones who will break your heart in the end, moving in and out of your life, constantly restless, never satisfied.

I stay because fire is one of the purest things I know. A fire only wants to burn. Climb a hill and watch this. Watch how it moves over the land like water moves over stone. Watch what happens when it comes to a barrier and moves around it like a current. Watch it find a way.

 A fire can surprise you, but it won't betray you, not like a person can.  Take your time. Read the forest, how it grows and dies, when it brims with moisture and when it thirsts for rain, how the wind walks through the trees, and the pattern of the canyons running to the ridgetops. When you really know these things, you can begin to trace the path a fire will take. After being a firefighter for half my life, even though I see fires burn in my dreams, I'm still learning. That's why I'm still here. That's why I stay.

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