Friday, March 30, 2012

chasing pavement

Now that I am back out at the helibase, my fitness options have increased. No longer am I relegated to running the trails by Costco or dodging teenage drivers by the school. The trails in the woods, while muddy, are starting to melt. The weight room in the shop is uncrowded. One of my future temporary employees informs me that he runs the mile and a half in 8 minutes, 14 seconds, contributing to the sense of urgency that I, at least, feel.

My coworkers appear bemused as I drag them over to the hotshot workout room. I'm sure they think I'm somewhat obsessed. After 25 years fighting fire, nobody would care if I took up a spot in the back of the pack, coasted a little, stopped pushing it. But I can't do it. I won't be running the mile and a half in eight minutes anytime soon, but I can still keep up with most of the 22 year olds. The difference is that, unlike them, I can't start up running two weeks before the season, or fail to do pullups for months, and bounce back just fine.

So I run to the dam and back, dodging rainstorms. I join the office crowd in an overpriced gym after work. Pretty soon the seasonals will be starting, and I don't want to just keep up. I want to be in the front, leading the way.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

living the trainee life

When I started fighting fire, there was no such thing as a trainee. If your supervisor thought you were ready, you took that crew boss or helicopter crewmember assignment. But everything changes, and now we have trainee taskbooks. Almost every position has one. You cart it with you everywhere you go on a fire, hoping to complete some tasks (Coordinate with the medical unit leader! Follow civil rights and equal employment opportunity policies!) even if you aren't officially assigned as a trainee. A side effect of all this taskbook business is a plethora of trainees sidling up to you at a helibase or on the fireline, brandishing their taskbooks, wanting to get something signed off.


Sometimes there seem to be more trainees on a fire than qualified people. On a fire in Alaska, a bunch of air operations trainees shared a rental car and appeared often at the helibase, probably hoping to get a Rare Event task signed off. Disappointed by the routine operation going on, they nevertheless continued to hang out. I seized the opportunity of being a trainee myself to ask them pointedly if they didn't have a meeting in camp they needed to go to, saying their presence was denying me a quality training experience. One of them wrote a message in the dust on the back window of their vehicle. It said, "Don't blame me, I'm just a trainee." At the next morning briefing, we were lectured sternly on the inappropriateness of writing on vehicles.

For some people, the presence of a trainee assigned to them allows them to kick back. They will sometimes be seen wandering the helibase in tennis shoes with a relaxed air, while the trainee rushes about frantically, tearing his or her hair out, scribbling on a stack of paperwork. If anything goes wrong, it must be the darn trainee's fault. However, this is preferable to the micromanaging trainer, the kind who can't let go, who grabs the radio and has to make all the decisions. You can recognize this type of trainer by observing their trainee, who trails behind with a trapped look, in charge of the car keys and lunches and little else.

You can't throw a stick on a fire anymore without hitting a trainee or two. But as much as I sometimes miss the simplicity of the old days, it's not a bad thing. Sometimes a trainee will see things in a different way, will point out something you completely missed. They make you realize you know some stuff after all. Next time you see your trainee on the fireline, now fully qualified, leading a crew of 20 firefighters or managing a complex helibase, it will make you smile. You helped them get there. You have to feel good about that.



Tuesday, March 20, 2012

still winter

We are opening up the helibase. It couldn't look less like fire season out here. Snow spits from a bleak winter sky. Clouds slouch sullenly over the peaks. The pilot/mechanic trailer sits abandoned in its off-season spot. The summer trails are hidden, covered in white.

It's cold inside the hangar. A mouse has moved in and shredded some paper towels. The vehicles wait, looking innocent, but we know from past experience that they will most likely refuse to start. The crew's gear hangs in their lockers just as they left it. At least one of them won't be back to reclaim it.

In the afternoon I run our river route. In the summer, we come here to sprint the hills. Then, it's hot and dry and the gravel crunches under our feet. Fishermen watch us curiously. Sometimes a lost soul, down on his luck, lives down here. Then, we are usually pressed for time, needing to return for a project, hopefully a fire. We run fast, toward the future.

Now, I run slowly, approaching the bridge, trying to stay in the icy ruts made by someone curious, driving down here for some unknown reason. It's quiet, the only sounds the wind in the trees and the water talking to itself as it rolls downriver. I pass the warehouse, the hotshot quonset hut, the empty seasonal quarters. The snow turns into rain.

In a few months, everything will be green out here. We will stir up dust and mosquitoes on the trails, running up Hamburger Hill and around Lion Lake. We will prop open doors and talk about how hot it is. The crew will noisily spill in and out of the buildings, ready for anything.

It's easy to wish time away, to look forward to something so much that you forget to be present. I want it to be summer, to hear the sound of the rotors and smell drift smoke. But there are times to enjoy right now. Being able to drift over to the hotshot building and visit, without needing to rush back. Making plans and keeping them. A silent run in the snow. This is enough for now.

Friday, March 16, 2012

brush fit

Working in the woods isn't glamorous. It's hard, uncomfortable, and sometimes boring. It's no surprise then, that even loggers back in the day occasionally succumbed to the dreaded brush fit.

Brush fit (noun): A temper tantrum made worse by heavy brush, bugs, mechanical failure, etc.

Firefighters are not immune to the brush fit, also known as an attack of the crazies. On a never-ending rehab assignment, Gerry finally snapped. Muttering about water bars, he flung himself into the fireline and started rolling around, pulling brush over himself. "I'll be a water bar," he growled. The rest of the crew all giggled, which kind of ruined the effect.

A supervisor was so well known for sudden bouts of yelling that the crew surreptitiously (we thought) created a flag to raise when he was on the rampage. "Purple flag warning," we'd whisper to each other. To his credit, he just laughed when he found out about this, and even yelled into a portable decibel monitor so we could see if our ears were being damaged.

Chainsaw throwing, Mark III pump kicking, ignition specialist trainees bursting into tears...you see it all out there. One of my temporary employees once started a heated argument about pilates, of all things. Cold, hordes of mosquitoes, or a general sense of unfairness can all contribute to a meltdown. Some are truly spectacular. A usually calm pilot exploded when the coordinates we were given put us in the middle of a crowded airspace instead of at the helibase. He glared at me as I inched closer to the door of the Bell 212, considering whether my chances would be better if I jumped out. "What!" he snapped. "I'm not mad at YOU. I'm just mad!" Later, overcome by remorse, he followed me around, apologizing profusely. Another pilot angrily kicked his flight helmet across the tarmac, leading to his swift dismissal by the helicopter company.

The best thing to do when confronted by an attack of the crazies is to disengage. Walk away and find something else to occupy yourself, maybe a leftover lunch or something shiny. Because even those old, tough loggers knew a brush fit wouldn't last long. Soon it would be over, and it would be time to pick up the saw again, and get back to work.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Hello. Will you be my minion?

(Disclaimer: For a couple of lost, aimless years I played World of Warcraft. [I know. Don't judge]. Some of the characters in this game, once they have attained certain levels, are able to acquire a minion. These are creatures whose function is to attack enemies, deflect spells, and protect their host. Minions are very valuable, so when I say minion, I mean it in the nicest way).

This is a Fiery Minion. They can be found wandering the Scorched Plain in Mount Hyjal, following their masters, the Twilight Scorchlords.

It's hiring season. Every year, I have a vision for this special time. I imagine myself in early January, happily receiving my referral list in a timely manner, and selecting from a well-qualified, grateful pool of applicants, without pesky obstacles like having to attain several levels of approvals just to hire someone who is going to work for about four months. In this dream I then see myself, with hiring out of the way, regularly sneaking out of the office to go snowboarding.

Here is the way it really happens. I get my referral list sooner or later. I hire a likely looking candidate, only to have him flee to a rappel crew a couple months later, after all the paperwork is complete. One of my returnees is unable to commit, holding out for a permanent job, which he finally gets. I start over, and immediately engage in fierce competition with other helitack crews for the few remaining good candidates. When another foreman answers the phone, instead of saying hi, I demand, "Don't you dare steal that person from me!" I pressure the applicants for a commitment. "Um.." they stall, like  deer in the headlights. I can read their minds: Hotshots? Rappel crew? They all want me! What should I do? Help! Other applicants stalk me, calling repeatedly and sending sincere, if desperate, emails.

Once I have finally stolen, and by that I mean selected, candidates who are hopefully hard-working, drama-free, mentally stable, and who play well with others, then I navigate the treacherous waters of the hiring process, in which I have to prove that I searched the corners of the globe for any applicants who might be hiding under rocks or in caves. After that, I must ambush the Forest Supervisor, who probably doesn't have anything better to do, to get his approval. Paperwork ensues, along with reassuring applicants who aren't receiving paperwork in a timely fashion and consider once again running away to a hotshot crew.

Once a crew comes together, though, it can be magic. Take a group of diverse people with different backgrounds and life experiences and throw them together and it can be a disaster or it can be something really great. Usually it's great. So bring on the hiring process, with its pitfalls and frustrations. In those seasons when you get the best crew ever, it's all worth it. Welcome to the crew, new minions! I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, March 5, 2012

fly away

I am teaching a new crop of would-be helicopter managers. If you don't know what this is, the job sounds important, and it can be. We sit in the front seat of the helicopter next to the pilot. We talk on the radio to Dispatch, other aircraft, and people on the ground. We use the GPS to mark waypoints and navigate to fires. Once there, we size up the situation and order resources. We keep our crews safe.

Some of these students weren't even born when I started flying in helicopters. We show them interminable powerpoints. We tell them about policy. Flight manuals. How to complete payment documents. They look less than thrilled. Several of them wear the slightly stunned, trapped look of relocated grizzly bears surveying their new territory.

Here's what I want to say, after 15 years of managing helicopters: It's not that hard. You'll figure it out. If you really need some advice, here it is:

  • Don't be a jerk.
  • Learn some stuff. Like weight and balance, and aerodynamics. Ask the mechanic what he's working on. And when you do learn some stuff, don't be a know-it-all (see above, "don't be a jerk"). Teach other people.
  • Know that policy exists for a reason, but so does common sense.
  • Let your crewmembers figure some things out on their own. They'll respect you, and themselves, more.
  • Be a little scared sometimes, not enough to paralyze you but enough to keep you on your toes.
  • If you ever get bored flying, get out of the front seat. Let someone else sit there. It's time to do something else.
  • Check the weather. Check it a lot.
  • Make sure the pilot has food. Fed pilots are happy pilots. And don't forget the fuel truck driver. A lot of people do. You need him, too.
  • Let your crewmembers fight the fires, unless there's enough to go around. They need the experience. You had a lot of opportunities. Give them some.
  • Before you go out to do a mission, remember that the helicopter might be worth two million dollars, but the people on board are priceless.
Now get out there. Make a few mistakes, not enough to hurt anything but enough to learn from. Ask questions, a lot of them. Fifteen years will go by in what seems like a minute. I hope you'll still love it then. I know I do.

Friday, March 2, 2012

gimme shelter

When I first started fighting fire, it was rare to see a tent at a fire camp, unless it was a wall tent for Finance or Logistics. We were issued a piece of plastic sheeting called visqueen and parachute cord to string it up. If you were lucky, whoever had cut the visqueen didn't short you any.

In those days, hooch building was an art. With a couple of fire tools, you could have yourself fine accommodations. I built one on a fire in Colorado that boasted a vestibule and a door made out of a plastic garbage bag. One night a camp minion appeared, making the rounds. "Just wanted to let you know there's a flood warning tonight," he said, indicating the torrential rain currently falling and the stream we were camped next to. It rained so much that we couldn't get into the fire the next day, but I stayed warm and dry in my hooch.

On the hotshot crew, we slept under a large yellow tarp, all of us. Unless you've slept under a tarp with 19 other people, it's hard to imagine the horror. Several snorers situated themselves throughout the area. There was always an early morning plastic bag rattler. When it rained, people on the outside got soaked. Being in the middle during a downpour wasn't much better, due to the need to sit up and poke the tarp to empty the water-filled bulges, also known as elephant butts. One morning our crew boss approached, pleased with himself. "I bought us tents!" he announced. Initially we were happy until we realized that he had bought two-person tents. Since we were all pretty sick of each other at that point, the last thing we wanted was to sleep even closer together.

These days, large fire camps resemble huge tent farms. Oddly, some crews pitch their tents so close together they might as well be sleeping under the old yellow tarp. Some of the tents that show up here tend to be on the cheap side. A variety popular in the 90s, the "Sixty Second Tent", was named so because, with poles already attached, it could be pitched in a minute. Sadly, they were so light that with a strong wind they sometimes came to a bad end.  The camp was often treated to the sight of several Sixty Second Tents rolling across a field like tumbleweeds, crews in hot pursuit.

The only hooch building that goes on these days is on remote fires, and even then, most people tote bivy sacks and tarps instead of visqueen and parachute cord. We all stay a little drier now. But give me some plastic and a couple shovels. I'm sure I still have the touch.