|This is Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, not me. In case you were wondering. I never look this good on a fire.|
I wore the Smokey Bear hat and a polyester uniform. I led groups of slow moving tourists along nature trails, pointing out flowers I had frantically looked up earlier as I sprinted the route with a plant field guide. I shepherded kids around who wanted to be "Junior Rangers." I mostly liked it. I loved living inside national parks, and there was always a group of people around to watch movies or do night hikes. I thought I would probably do this job forever.
One year, the west was burning with even more ferocity than usual. "Everyone has to take fire training," my supervisor said. I was indifferent, knowing nothing about firefighting. I handled the tools ineptly and suffered through the slideshow. It didn't matter, because I was never going to do it, I thought.
But then there was a fire. And you didn't say no, back then. You went, with a group of 19 other people, some of them strangers, many of them just as clueless as you were. We were a thrown together crew of rangers, trail crew workers, and fee collectors. Somehow we made it work.
This fire was a pivotal point in my life, although I didn't realize it at the time. It could have so easily gone the other way, if we had been stuck mopping up in a black wasteland, or stuck in a staging area. But we dug fireline at the top of a mountain while a fire roared toward us, the flamelengths soaring 200 feet above the treetops. We had to run from it, racing down a trail to a highway where we lay on the hot pavement and waited for transportation. We held the line as hotshot crews burned from the road, and I tied pink flagging ribbon in my waist length hair. A band came in to camp and we danced. After 21 days we were sent to a dusty state park for R&R, and then went back to the fire for another week.
I thought all fires were like this. They're not, but I was hooked after that. I spent one more season as a ranger, and then applied to a fire crew, and a hotshot crew after that. I didn't really have a plan to become a girl on fire. Like many good things, it just kind of happened. I'm not on the road I planned to take, but it was probably the right one after all.