Thursday, December 29, 2011

what the water gave me

There were no water sources in Mesa Verde that we could use for firefighting. No rivers or lakes. Maybe there were hidden springs here and there, tucked into steep canyon walls, but nothing a helicopter bucket could get to. Coming from the Pacific Northwest, where I had started fighting fire, this was disconcerting. There, water had been everywhere. We carried gravity socks and some 3/4 inch hose in our packs, and we wasted water there, drowned fires in it, because there was always more to be had. When it wasn't close by on the ground, it came from the sky in torrents. My squad and I spent several days once hunched under makeshift visqueen shelters, waiting for the rain to stop and the clouds to rise, so that we could be flown out of a wilderness fire by helicopter.This never happened, so we picked our way through devil's club and around cliffs to get out, lowering our packs by parachute cord over rock faces so we could scramble down unencumbered.

It was different in the desert southwest. Here, we piled up what was on fire and let it burn out. We searched for cooler dirt, carrying it by the shovelfuls and mixing it into the embers, stirring again and again to suffocate the heat. You have to have patience, if you are going to put a fire out this way. You can't be rushing around. You need to learn the ground you stand on.

At Mesa Verde, there were two places we could get water for the helicopter bucket. One was the sewage settling ponds, which we only used if we were desperate. The other was a sunken stone cistern. At the beginning of the season, we filled it with water from our engine. It had a heavy lid that the unfortunate crewmember who was left behind to manage the helibase had to open if we needed water. While the lid kept the jackrabbits out of the cistern, somehow animals found their way in. Our pilot, Jere, took great delight in scooping dead mice up in his bucket along with the water and bringing them to us on our fires. "Did you see the mouse?" he'd ask as he flew away. We learned to flee well away from the fireline when we heard him coming, both to avoid the mouse missiles and the possible sewage water.

At the end of the season, we used the engine to drain the cistern, but there was about a foot of water left in the tank. This meant that some lucky crewmembers had to climb in there with buckets and bail it out. I peered suspiciously into the murky water. Big Bob had already jumped in and was bailing away enthusiastically, oblivious to several carcasses floating by his legs. "Bob, you have to get the tarantulas out, and then I'll get in," I ordered. Bob cheerfully scooped up the spiders so they wouldn't touch my princess feet.

There are things in everyone's lives, like the elusiveness of water in the desert, that are valuable because of their scarcity. Maybe it's true love, or honesty, or just a real best friend. You can do without it, whatever it is, for awhile. You tell yourself that it isn't necessary, that you've figured out how to get by. But when you find it again, it's like seeing an unexpected lake that you thought was just a mirage. Suddenly you have water, more than you ever dreamed of. What will you do with it? Maybe you will waste it, like a firefighter with a nozzle set on straight stream. But just maybe you've learned enough to treasure it. When I find it, I know I will.

Monday, December 26, 2011

the government ski (and snowboard, and snowshoe) team

Back when I was a seasonal employee and lived a temporary life, wandering from place to place, we called our four to six months of unemployment "joining the government ski team." I tried to find winter jobs when I could, but it was hard to find employers who would hire someone for only a few months until spring came around again. If we couldn't find work, my friends and I scraped by, renting cheap, drafty apartments, house sitting, and eating a lot of peanut butter. And we skied, or snowshoed, or hiked all winter.

Now that I work all year round in what we used to call "a real job", and have benefits and a retirement plan and am part of the Forest Safety Committee, I am only a weekend member of the government ski team. I don't exercise anymore for two hours a day at the gym because, well, I had the time, or get up, gaze at the weather, and decide what to do that day. Traveling is a lot less spontaneous. But there are benefits too. I can buy an Arcteryx jacket on a whim. I don't have to call in to the unemployment office and look for work. I can retire in five years if I want to.

Some days though, I decide to take a day off in the middle of the week. I go to the woods or the ski area. And I see you there, government seasonal employees. I recognize you because I used to be one of you. Maybe you secretly want a permanent job like I have, but you look pretty happy to me. I want to say, there's still time. You won't regret these perfect days. Stay out there a little longer.

Christmas Eve 2011

Sunday, December 18, 2011

the question

Think about your job. Now think of the question you get the most from people who aren't familiar with your profession. If you're a psychologist, it might be, "Do you always analyze people around you?" (I confess: I asked a psychologist this once. He said no. But I think he really was).

"Do you fly the helicopter?" and "Do you jump out of the helicopter?" are probably numbers two and three on my question list. The answers are: no, the pilot does, and no, you must have watched the movie Firestorm. The main question people always seem to ask me is, "What do you do in the winter?"

Howie in smokejumper gear, ready to jump out of a helicopter instead of a plane for some reason. Love you anyway, Howie!

This question makes me cringe, because well, it's not that interesting. I sit in a cubicle. This is where I write aviation plans, work on hiring people, have conference calls, and plan helicopter training. Occasionally there is the excitement of a hard drive crash and the subsequent torturous "re-imaging" process. There are also many, many meetings, including video conferences in which several of us sit in unflatteringly lit rooms by ourselves all over the state staring at each other on large TVs, resembling some sort of odd, multi-subject police interrogation or job interview.

What gets me through these days are two things. One is knowing that all these plans I write, all these meetings, and all this training I organize make it possible for us to have the sweet days of summer flying over the wilderness and seeing the mountains from the sky. The other is the rare winter mission, a helicopter flight to look for wolverine tracks or to take a radio tech to a malfunctioning repeater.

I'm not complaining, though. I know I'm lucky to have a full-time job with benefits, the holy grail of government employment that we wanted when we were seasonals. So in my cubicle, I enjoy the little things. A snowy owl perched on a light post in the parking lot. Someone's happiness when I offer them a job. An email from a friend. I plan climbing trips (on my lunch break of course, Forest FMO if you are reading). Sometimes I leave early on a perfect afternoon for a snowy run or a short trip to the ski hill.

So that's my question, and there's the answer. What's yours?

Playing in the snow on a "work day"

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

love among the ashes: a girl's guide to the elusive fireline romance

A fire assignment romance can be a sweet dream or a beautiful nightmare. Just like fire suppression, it requires careful attention to strategy and tactics. It pays to have a plan of attack to avoid entrapment. Work smarter, not harder. Here are some tips (Not that I would know ANYTHING about this subject):

1. Choose your target wisely. Someone on your crew? Red flag warning! If you go this route, heed this corollary: At all costs, do not annoy your crew boss, helicopter manager, or anyone else who is the boss of you. If YOU are the crew boss, helicopter manager, etc, mind corollary #2: At all costs, do not annoy your crew (or tell them).

2. Do your research. Inconvenient girlfriend? Unstable personality yet carries a sharp pulaski with him everywhere? Hygiene issue that may not only be the result of 10 days at a spike camp? Member of the Stupid Squad? Safety alert! Prepare to reconsider.

3. Approach your prey, I mean love interest. Avoid the "helpless fire princess" trap. This is not attractive, and besides, we all know you're tougher than that, sister.  Determine common interests. Similar red card qualifications? One of you a trainee? Both love the smell of Jet A in the morning? Attempt to work together.

4. Watch your step. You can't afford any mistakes at this juncture that will cause you to violate corollary #1 or #2 (see above, if you forgot already). Don't show up late to the helicopter in the morning, forget your hard hat and have to go back to camp, or take the last chocolate milk at dinner. Especially not that. Just don't.

5. Avoid drama. If you get the sense that the rest of your crew would rather walk to the fire with two broken legs than fly there in the helicopter with you, that is a problem. If you find yourself using passive aggressive comments, or even having a hissy fit, stop. High school called, and it wants its relationship back. Use an escape route if you need to.

6. Wrap it up. If what happens at fire camp is going to stay at fire camp, no need for endless After Action Reviews. Plan to continue? Nice work! Enjoy. And if nothing else, there is always next fire season. See you out there!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

big black boots

"Big black boots,
long brown hair,
She's so sweet,
with her get back stare"

-Jet, "Are You Gonna Be My Girl"

The right pair of fire boots makes you walk differently. They give you a sort of authority. You can't tiptoe around in fire boots. People can hear you coming when you have big black boots on your feet. If you want to, go ahead and stomp around, just because you can.

It took me 23 years to find these fire boots:

They're the Hercules Hot Shot, made by an Italian mountaineering boot company. They are as comfortable as a fuzzy sweater. I would wear them even if I didn't have to. Packing 70 pounds out of the McMillan Fire was a little less miserable because of these.

When I first started firefighting, I bought a pair of Red Wings, because a. I was poor, and b. I didn't know any better. They immediately stretched out, and I usually sported an interesting variety of moleskin patches and duct tape on my feet. I wasn't the only one though: on one fire, one of my helitack crewmembers reported that he saw a soldier doctoring his feet. His sergeant loomed over him.  "Who told you that you could have a blister, soldier?" the sergeant bellowed.

On my hotshot crew, everyone wore Wescos, a lower-heeled boot that made it a little easier to walk through the slash units we burned. I stayed with these for years, until a small group of firefighters started questioning why we couldn't use newer technology and wear hiking or mountaineering boots. I bought these boots by La Sportiva:

Suddenly, a wide variety of boots blossomed on the fireline. This bothered some people, the ones who are scared of change. Safety officers lurked in the woods with rulers to measure the height of these interloper boots. A ranger was heard to say that nobody wearing La Sportivas would be allowed on his district. Of course, my helitack crew made a point of wearing them every time we went there.

I recently found another pair of Hercules online for less than $100 (regularly $300). Score! So look out. That stomping sound you hear will be me coming your way, with happy feet.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

other lives and second chances

Hearing about helicopter crashes makes me shiver even on 90 degree days. Today a tour helicopter crashed near Lake Mead, killing all five people on board. It made me think as I have so many times before, how lucky am I?

In an earlier post I described the crash I survived. Although it happened eight years ago, I still think about it often. I think about the other crashes, the other people who weren't as lucky. Krassel. Iron 44. White River.

In these moments, all I can do is this: Try to live purposefully and with grace. Be present. Take that leap of faith. Love with my whole heart. Don't hurt other people. In these small actions I can honor the memories of those after me who didn't survive, and find meaning in the second chance I was given.

Rest in peace. I won't forget.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

rest for the wicked

If you've ever suffered a soul-crushing life event, the kind that makes you want to throw yourself into a fast-moving river wearing ankle weights, sometimes the best thing to do is just...get out of town. Way out, away from people's well-meaning comments like, "Get over it!", "Time to move on", and "Everything happens for a reason." (I especially hate this one. What? What is the damn reason? I'm waiting)

Of course, firefighters never need an excuse to get out of town, especially during the off season. Name a semi-warm country with a decent beach on it, and chances are someone on your crew has been there, or knows a fire friend who has. Costa Rica, Australia, Fiji...we scatter over the map in the winter like grains of sand.

My theory is that we are chasing summer. In our jobs, we catch glimpses of this magical season through the helicopter window, or while packing 70 pounds of gear out from a fire through the woods. We can see you, people on boats in tank tops and shorts, while we monitor helicopter dip sites. Your barbecue smells delicious. But let's focus here. We didn't want Monday through Friday office jobs, so if we make it till winter, the tropics are there waiting.

In late November I make my escape. Cash in some frequent flier miles. Pack my flip flops. Leave town in the early morning darkness.

I called this place the Lost World. Hike 9 miles in and you can be here too.

 Of course, nothing really is different once you come back from getting out of town. What you tried to leave behind is still here, whether it's winter office work and meetings, or a personal loss. But there is this: while I walked, I picked up passionfruit off the forest floor and ate it, seeds and all, savoring the sweetness. Once, every day of my life was just as sweet. And it will be again.

Friday, November 25, 2011

land of the lost

P. and I sized each other up.  City boy, I thought. But he seemed nice enough, and fit, and most importantly, I had no choice. We were going to spend the next few days together whether we liked it or not.

Our assignment was to hike into a backcountry cabin in [insert name of Famous National Park here] and monitor a wilderness fire. We would have a canoe to paddle over and collect fuel samples, calculate rate of spread, and draw maps. In other words, a pretty sweet assignment.

Everything started off fine. We had a late start because, well, this was the government. But we only had five miles to hike to the cabin, so what could go wrong? With his long legs, P. quickly put some distance between us. This was OK with me however, because although he had our only map, radio, and canister of bear spray, I had all the food. He had the skinny look of someone who needed to eat often, so I was sure I wouldn't lose him for good.

I quickly determined that my government-issued backpack was the most uncomfortable item I had ever worn. To distract myself from the pain, I started talking to myself. Some people might call it whining. Those people are just big meanies. I was fully engaged in this activity when I came around a corner to find P. huddled over the map.

"This doesn't seem right," he fretted. "That cabin should be RIGHT HERE." He crashed off into the woods, only to return defeated. "They said it was only a faint trail, so that hikers didn't find it, but it's not here." This was before firefighters carried GPS units, but we could both read a map. It clearly showed a small black square denoting the cabin. "Well, let's go a little bit farther," P. said tentatively. It was already starting to get dark.

Finally we halted in the middle of the trail. "Let's go down to the beach and make a fire," I said, fully knowing that this was highly illegal in [Famous National Park]. P. perked up. "Here's a fusee!" he said. We sat around our tiny fire and second guessed ourselves. "I'm going to go find it," P. said bravely. Because he was on the move, he took the bear spray and radio. I inched closer to the fire. Every squirrel in the brush sounded like an enormous grizzly looking for dinner. Why did I have to read those bear attack books, I wondered to myself.

Finally, a loud crashing in the bushes signaled P.'s return. He looked miserable. "I couldn't find it," he moaned. "I decided to swim, because I knew there was a boathouse where they keep the canoes. And, I sprayed myself with the bear spray." He plopped down in the sand. "We have to call somebody," he said.

We looked at each other and cringed. The only thing worse than calling someone and admitting we couldn't find the cabin was to actually have to be rescued by the rangers, but at least in that case you probably would have an interesting, debilitating injury that would decrease some of the shame of it. Plus, who were we going to call at 2 in the morning?

"I know, we'll call the fire lookout," I said. As I recall, I made P. do it. The lookout answered the radio immediately. "Oh, the map is wrong," she said cheerfully. "The cabin isn't where it shows it at all." The correct location was an hour's hike back down the trail. We carefully hid the evidence of our illegal fire and started walking. P. hung back for once, making me go first to be bear bait. "Hey bear," I yelled as we traversed head-high brush. P. didn't make a sound as I stomped along sending some unkind thoughts in his direction.

At 3 am we stumbled into the cabin. P. conscientiously took some notes on smoke volume before we collapsed into the bunks. "Let's not tell anybody about this," he said. And as far as I know, the lookout never told, either. We spent the next few days canoeing, taking notes, and hiking out without incident.

I never saw P. again, but, even though it was years ago, I'd like to think that he, too, sometimes remembers the Night of the Lost Firefighters and it makes him smile just a little.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

(mis) adventures in firefighting

2012 will be my 25th season fighting fire. I'd like to say that I've come this far with no mishaps, but I'm sure some of my firefighting friends would immediately come out of the woodwork to tell some stories. It wouldn't have been fun if things hadn't gone wrong occasionally. It can't always be unicorns and rainbows out there, can it? The statute of limitations has expired on most of these (I think). So here it is, the list of shame. Along the way, I:

  • Caught my hair on fire with a fusee while burning in front of a fire with the hotshots.
  • Started an unintentional fire at fire camp.
  • Started an unintentional fire at a helibase.
  • Temporarily misplaced a backcountry patrol cabin, thus leading to an illegal campfire in a national park, an unplanned swim, my firefighter partner spraying himself with pepper spray, and a 2 am death march through grizzly infested brush fields.
  • Temporarily misplaced my 20 person crew while I scouted for a water source. (But those meadows all looked the same!)
  • Temporarily misplaced an entire fire while I scouted for better egress. (Thanks Tacoma for starting up the saw).
  • Engaged in an inappropriate fire assignment romance. (It was so fun though).
  • Sent a rookie to Supply for a gallon of rotor wash. (But felt bad and had him come back before he got there).
  • Got caught by fire camp security trying to sneak off to some prohibited hot springs with my helitack module.
  • Was determined not to ask for resupply on a 4 day helitack fire, so ran out of food (thanks Aaron for sharing!)
  • Forgot my headlamp, and of course ended up in the woods at night.
  • Forgot my hard hat, and had to wear my flight helmet all day like a dork.
  • Asked for too many blivets on a helitack fire, causing Dan and I to test the limits of our line packs with gear on the long, long hike out. (Sorry!)
Unfortunately, this is only a partial list...stay tuned! I'm sure there will be more to come.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

baby, we were born to run

I run up a snowy trail at sunset. It's no longer fire season, so I'm back to fitting in workouts after work. During the season, my crew and I theoretically get one hour a day for "PT" (physical training, aka physical torture). Theoretically, because once fires start, we are often too busy with helicopter missions and fires.

Most fire crews run. If you see a nice gym at a fire cache, chances are you are in the vicinity of smokejumpers or hotshots. The rest of us tend to get by with scary, rickety weight benches and ancient dumbbells. This forces us to be creative (a grueling workout called Billy Big Arms comes to mind). So, often, we run.

Homemade pullup bar in AK

Some crews run together in grim lockstep. Others venture out in pairs or alone. On one of my crews, we would start out together and then gradually separate based on our individual pace. As we passed each other we would enthusiastically high-five in encouragement.

One day, the foreman decided to motivate K, one of our detailers. "Run faster!" he yelled. "There are GIRLS ahead of you!" Being one of those GIRLS, I didn't find it amusing that he seemed to think that the slowest male should be able to run faster than the fastest female. Plus, we were running up a heinous hill. I growled at both of them and increased my pace.

At the end of the run, we waited on the helipad for the foreman and K. As they approached, we could hear the yelling: "Run faster! Jennifer Lopez is up there waiting for you!"  Now that the run was over, I could afford to think this was funny. I remembered a long trekking day in Nepal where one of my hiking partners had written in the snow "Hot Men Ahead!" to give the female trekkers some pep in their step. This kind of motivation could work, I had to admit.

Another time, the crew started out for an 8 mile run. Joe, a visiting helicopter manager, had a reputation for being a fanatical runner, but he was older, and sure enough, we left him about a half mile behind as we raced along past the Bad Boys Ranch and toward the powerline where the two mile long Hill of Horror awaited. In survival mode as we struggled up the hill, at first we didn't hear the footsteps behind us as Joe reeled us in.

"Try to keep your breathing the same as it was on the flats," he said serenely as he blew past us, disappearing up the hill. "Even if it means slowing down," we could hear him say in the distance.

Now that it is winter, I have time for more variety. I reacquaint myself with the gym. I climb at the indoor rock wall. I hike in the snow, and dust off my snowboard and snowshoes. But some days, I keep it simple. I put on some layers and find my running shoes, and head out into the bright, cold afternoon. I listen to my breath. I am present in the moment, and I am happy. I just run.

Friday, November 11, 2011

the web of fire

It's 11/11/11, a dream of a day for those who see portents and signs in everything. People are asking: Should I buy a lottery ticket today? Get married today?

Not me. I'm going for a more sure thing, an early winter hike with two sweet friends.

Three firefighters and a dog hike up a trail. Snow sprinkles the ground. Being firefighters, we look around, judging the terrain.

"I bet we could hike up there and get to the ridge," one of us says. We look at each other and shrug. Why not? We start climbing cross country. It's slippery. We kick steps in the snow and climb over patches of blowdown. I use the mountaineering rest step, trying to stay close to the only one of us who has bear spray and is wearing safety orange.

The valley from Columbia Mountain Trail, 11/11/11

As we climb, we talk idly about winter plans, snowboarding, and travel, but our conversation always drifts back to fire. "How was Texas this year?" we ask. "Did you run into my friend there?"

Sometimes I imagine every wildland firefighter in the country attached to each other by invisible threads, a web that covers our entire restless seasonal tribe. There are less than six degrees of separation between all of us. If we don't know each other, we know someone in common, have been on the same fire, or worked at the same district.

Rappeller buddy check

 Everywhere I go, someone will come up to me at briefing or on the helibase, exuberantly saying something like this: "Hi! I was on your helitack module in 2000 in Taos!" or "My buddy Steve used to be on your crew!" It is like having a large extended family who you hardly ever see, but when you do, you slide right back into conversation like you were never gone.

Central Complex, Alaska

When a strand of this web breaks, when one of us is gone, however it happens, we feel it deep into our bones. We can hear the roar of the fire that took them, or feel the shudder of the aircraft as it descended. They were one of us, whether we knew them or not. They stood on the same ground, breathed the same smoke into their lungs, knew what it felt like to chase lightning through the hills. They won't be coming home, but we are. We carry their memory with us on every fire.

My friends and I stand on the ridge. A cold wind wraps around us. It's time to head down, to slide down the mountain through the brush and snow. We walk separately, but we are connected forever.

Happy hiking partners

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Avalanche Lake, 11/9/11

Nothing to say about fire today.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
Lao Tzu

Sunday, November 6, 2011

girl clothes

When the firefighting movie Always came out, I was living in Hawaii. Kendell and I sat in his car at a Honolulu drive-in, eating pizza and making fun of it.

"Look at them, trying to use a backpack pump on 100 foot flames," he scoffed. "That would NEVER HAPPEN. This is SO DUMB."

At the time, we had no idea of how truly awful firefighting movies could be (sorry, Howie Long, I know we share a zip code, but Firestorm? Really?) and much as I like Holly Hunter, I had to agree that there was not much that was realistic in the movie. However, there was one scene I still remember.

In it, her reckless air tanker pilot boyfriend Richard Dreyfuss brings Holly a birthday present. It's not really her birthday, but she forgives him when she sees what he has given her...a white dress and high heeled shoes. Girl clothes.

Holly and Richard, drinking champagne in fire camp. I want to go there!

Most of the summer, I look like this:

I wake up, put my hair in a ponytail, and throw on nomex pants and a t-shirt. I wear big black boots. Sunscreen is the only cosmetic on my face, unless you count dirt. My feet and my hands are calloused. I am one of the guys. And most of the time, this is ok. The men I like prefer a woman in a Patagonia fleece and no makeup to one who looks high maintenance. But sometimes, I want to wear girl clothes.

I go to the Blue Moon with four men I work with. "I need to go home and change my clothes," I whine. Being men, they look at me like I'm crazy. "What you have on is fine," they say. I'm wearing nomex pants and a too-big hoody. "You look better than all the other girls here," one of them says sweetly, but inaccurately, since the other women in the bar are wearing carefully applied makeup and cute tank tops.

High fashion in Galena, Alaska

So every once in awhile, when I don't want to feel like a fire guy, I take my time. Mascara. Dark kohl eyeliner. A black dress that can make a good guy go bad. All things every woman should have, even if she only brings them out once a year. Even if she usually wears Icebreaker and puffy jackets.

I like going to work and not worrying about my appearance. Knowing that most of the time, I can spontaneously go for a hike in what I'm wearing. Feeling ready for anything. But every once in awhile, I want to feel like Holly in the movie where she comes down the stairs in her beautiful white dress and everyone turns to look. Amen, sister. I get it.

This is me too.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


It's supposed to start snowing tonight. I sit at my desk, staring outside. The thought, why am I here? occurs to me. When I can't come up with an answer, I escape to the park for the afternoon. I hike to this fire lookout:

Apgar Lookout, Glacier National Park
I was last here a year ago today. Everything is different now. A year can change everything.

Today is one of those heartbreakingly beautiful days that remind you again why you love living in a small mountain town. If I close my eyes I could believe it was September. I'm wearing too many layers,  a phenomenon that rarely happens. Usually I wear too little and have to keep moving. I smile at the other six women I see on the trail. There are no men hiking here today.

The lookout is one of several cabins scattered through Glacier on lonely mountains. Few are staffed in the summer anymore. Instead, detection flights spot most of the fires these days. Lookouts like this sit empty with all their stories, their shutters tightly closed, ready for the long winter sleep.

RIP Scenery Lookout (no longer standing)

In a few months, I will come up here with snowshoes. The approach will be two miles longer, and the lookout buried in drifts. The wind will be colder. The golden larches will have lost their needles long ago.

But eight months from now there will be a new fire season. The seasonal fire lookouts will hike up to their cabins, throw open the shutters and let the sun inside.

I stop at my favorite beach along Lake McDonald. It's still warm enough to sit on the rocks and watch the water.

It is not the end of everything, but just the beginning of something new.

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.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

confessions of a front seat hog

This is the view my helicopter crewmembers see most of the time from the back seat:

This is what I get to see from the front:

The Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

Maybe, as a helitack foreman with hundreds of hours flying left front seat, I should do what so many of my kind have done: fade graciously into the background, stay in the office, and spend my time struggling with government computer programs that sound as if they should be fun but are anything but: 52 tracker, talx separation reporter, Aglearn. I should let my employees fly in the front seat more, giving them valuable experience sizing up fires, helping navigate, and operating the radios. Maybe...oh, who am I kidding. No way!

Great Northern Mountain

Flying in the front seat, I have evacuated civilians from the path of fast-moving fires, advised air tankers where to drop retardant, located stray cows, and participated in search and rescue. I have bonded with pilots during long ferry flights across Alaska and survived some scary moments that we both decided not to talk about afterwards. The possibility of flight gets me through dark winters spent in a cubicle in the main office, torturous video conferences, and the oddly named "family meetings". The helicopter just left less than a month ago. I can't wait for it to come back.

The Beavers in Minnesota were cool, but helicopters are still better!

I'll be here, ready to jump in the left front seat, with my name on the manifest and my ex-military flight helmet, with my GPS and bag of candy. The rest of them will get their turns soon enough.

Small fire by Aspen, CO

Thursday, October 27, 2011

ode to helicopter mechanics

Dear helicopter mechanics,

You never get the glory. Instead, it's all about the pilot. We worry: did the pilot get enough rest? we need to get a lunch for the pilot! we have an initial attack, get the pilot!  We even have rooms at helibases we call "the PILOT lounge." No mention of the poor mechanic, who may need to lounge as well. When helicopter managers get together, we never gossip about mechanics, only pilots. We say, "Did you ever fly with Gary when he was at AgRotors with the Starship?" "What contract is Joel flying?" "Have you ever dated a pilot?"

Sorry, guys. This is long overdue.

We wouldn't go anywhere in the helicopter without you, tinkering behind the scenes. We wouldn't get to see the Bob Marshall Wilderness, or Glacier National Park from the air, and get paid for it. Most pilots know a lot about maintenance, but not like you do. You patiently explain what you are fixing on the helicopter, even while our eyes glaze over and you know you will have to explain it again, and then probably write it down. You stay late to do the 100 hour inspections while we all take off for the night, leaving you in the rain. You fix the lines on the bucket when we put it away wrong. You drive the pilot around, and bring him food, and sometimes you bicker like an old married couple, but we know you like each other (right?)

Some of you drive the fuel truck too, back and forth to places like Spotted Bear without complaining. (well, not a lot). You usually get there well before our chase truck, even while hauling 750 gallons of fuel. You don't get too mad when we have the helicopter land in a soft field and then you get your truck stuck. Even when we giggle about it.


So, to the grumpy mechanics of the past, it's ok. I forgive you, Jim, for thinking women didn't belong on helicopters and for asking the pilot to leave me in Canada on our ferry flight. (He didn't, or my life might have turned out totally different, eh?) I feel sorry for you, mechanic I won't name, for holing up in a motel room with a bottle of whiskey and a .44, saying when the booze was gone you were going to shoot yourself. After all, the pilot's response was only, "Tell him not to miss, or he will just make a mess." Maybe you just needed a little appreciation.

To all the mechanics I have known, Chad, Bob, both Jasons, Mike, Kim, T-Bird and all the others, thank you for a job well done. Next time I go to a helicopter manager workshop, we will make sure to talk about you. And in a nice way.

Monday, October 24, 2011

love and fire

Joan Crawford once said:

"Love is a fire. But whether it is going to warm your hearth or burn down your house, you can never tell."

If love is a fire, I know I should prefer the quiet ones, the fires that burn slowly but steadily through the forest, the ones that barely scorch the trees, the ones you can walk next to and do whatever it is you need to do: monitoring plots, fuel sampling, rate of spread calculations. These fires will never roar through the forest, sterilize the soil, or threaten subdivisions. In the end they are beneficial, taking away what is not needed and strengthening what is.

But I always choose the love that is like the wild conflagration, the kind you need to run from to save yourself. These are the fires that light up the sky at night from 20 miles away. They burn with a beautiful passion that consumes everything. Until there is nothing left to burn and you are left with only the memory of it.

I think Joan was only half right. Love is a fire. Which way it will go, though, you can usually tell. But still you do it. You go ahead and light the match anyway.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

the alaska fire diaries

In the five years I spent living and fighting fire in Alaska, I tried to love it enough to stay forever and tried to hate it enough to leave for good. I loved the flying, covering miles and miles of black spruce forest and rivers, occasionally spotting a lonely homestead deep in the wilderness. The fires were like nothing I had ever seen, running through the tree crowns after days of rain. But the winters bore down on me like an oncoming train, the cold drawing deep into my bones. To me Alaska was like a lover you know you can't stay with but yet can't quite leave behind.

When I left, I took with me memories of five summers of fire. If I had kept a fire diary, a typical day would have gone like this:

Monday. Or is it Friday? Doesn't matter

6 am. Wake up. The 24 hour daylight doesn't bother me like it does some of the firefighters from the Lower 48. There's no need to go to a fire camp briefing, since we are camped right on the fireline. I reach out of my tent and light a Pic mosquito coil, so that in an hour when I get up, the mosquitoes will be bearable.

7 am. I stroll by the crew camp. I am the strike team leader for some native crews. They are packing lunches from the fresh food boxes, pulling back a layer of tundra to reveal their refrigerator- the "tundra cooler" - fruit and vegetables on the permafrost just a few inches below the forest floor. They are from a fly-in village, and like to laugh and tease each other. Already there are some pranks brewing this morning. I'm not one of them, but they accept me. The crew rookie carries a packboard with the essential coffeepot, coffee, and sugar. He knows this is his lot in life until he has a few fires to his credit, and grins cheerfully.

10 am. The crew is hard at work. Their chainsaws growl as they create a fuel break. Some smokejumpers parachute in to help. They grumble a bit at the incessant mosquitoes and inevitable wet feet. They are supposed to be flown out by helicopter later in the day. One declares, "These mosquitoes are awful! I'm not eating anything so I don't have to go to the bathroom!"

12 pm.  We are close to completing our saw line, hours ahead of schedule. I swamp for the sawyers. "This crew really gets after it," one of the jumpers says. Hearing this, the rookie beams. The crew takes a coffee break. The mosquitoes don't seem to bother them as much as they do the non-natives. However, I refuse to be seen wearing a bug headnet. That is a true lower 48 move. Not showering for 21 days, along with the 100 % military DEET, seems to help. The DEET, which comes in mysterious green bottles and can melt plastic hard hats, does double duty as a fire starter.

4 pm. Fog has settled in around us like a thick blanket. The jumper who didn't want to eat anything is heard cussing and marching off into the brush with a shovel. The other jumpers giggle unsympathetically.

7 pm. The camp boss waves at me. He was left in camp today to protect the food against bears, clean up, and have dinner waiting for the crew. Tonight it looks like they are having moose stew.

10 pm. It's still full daylight. I lie in my tent. Two miles away across a wet meadow is a hotshot camp, and across the next marsh another hotshot crew. The two superintendents talk idly on the radio about the next assignment in California for one of the crews.

"It's just project work. Stacking sticks," Pat says.

"At least your feet will be dry," Dave says wistfully.


9 am. The fog lifts enough for a helicopter to fly us to a nearby sandbar in the middle of the river to wait while they do the aerial ignition from our saw line. The crew fans out and explores the area. One of the jumpers immediately begins fishing. The crew finds a moose antler and presents it to me. We watch the helicopter as it drops fire. It catches and boils up over the spruce. Soon we will be gone, the crew back to their village with their fire paychecks, the jumpers and me back to Fairbanks to wait for the next one. We sit in the sand, content.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Eight years ago today I sat in a helicopter as it spun toward the ground. I looked at Russ, sitting across from me, and thought his eyes were the last thing I would ever see. I thought the sound of tree limbs breaking and metal folding were the last sounds I would ever hear. I thought these were my last moments to live.

Then, something unexpected. In those last precious moments, fear changed to acceptance, to an overwhelming sense of peace. It wrapped around me like a lover's arms. I believe I have been searching for this feeling ever since.

In the end we all crawled out of the wreckage unharmed. The real damage came later, when one of us could not fight the demons that day helped awaken. I'm sorry, M., that you survived the accident but in the end nobody could save you.

Today, the day of my second chance, is a reminder to look beyond the surface, to reach out and drink in all the sweetness of life. Everything that is good sometimes seems as far away as the stars, but it is all out there, waiting for me to find.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

fire and rain

We have been on a fire in Minnesota for three days. We left the helicopter in Colorado and drove 24 hours to get here, through snowstorms and lonely windswept towns.

This fire has been burning for over a month. Much of it is only accessible by water. Crews travel by seaplanes and canoes, portaging from lake to lake. We go to the seaplane base to take canoe training, in case we are needed on the fireline. This quickly degenerates into canoe races, until the instructor tires of us and says it is time to go back to shore.

Later, we drive into the fire. Green grass is already growing in parts of the burn.

Now it is raining. This is Big Rain, the season-ending kind. There is talk of snow and high temperatures in the 30s by next week. It was bound to happen. We have been chasing summer for too long. It's time now to start packing up, to think about winter.

We will stay here as long as we can, until the helicopters leave and the crews come off the line for good. Sled dogs will be used to get any gear left in the wilderness if the weather closes in. It's just about time to move on, to see what's next.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

cross country

Snow is coming. By all rights we should be winterizing the pilot's trailer and giving the temporary employees their end of the season evaluations. Instead, I sit in the helicopter, following summer south.

Fuel stop

We have a resource order for a fire in Colorado. This is a surprise, and the crew rolls in from days off, dragging duffel bags. The flight will take about 6 hours and require two fuel stops. I look out the window at hot springs in Yellowstone, and hundreds of elk and wild horses on the mesas. There is a double rainbow somewhere in Wyoming. The pilot and I indulge in our serious addiction to Sour Patch Kids. Somewhere in Utah, three of my crewmembers are rallying the chase truck for the 1000 mile drive.

Somewhere in Wyoming

I know this is stolen time. It is late for fire season to be lingering in the mountains. The forecast for northwest Colorado is for rain and then a winter storm. This assignment is a bonus, a temporary reprieve from unemployment and off season jobs for the crew. When I get back, I will be sitting in a cubicle in the main office, doing the duties of the position above mine. I will wear regular clothes instead of Nomex and fire boots. I will go to meetings and attend mandatory training. I won't be flying near Aspen over hills splashed with gold, calculating the acreage on a fire burning quietly in sage and oak brush.

Aspens near Aspen

  So I savor it, even the days when it rains and we sit at the airport with no flights scheduled. We run in the evenings. We cram into the ancient Buick courtesy car that threatens to strand us in town, and approach each new restaurant with hopeful optimism. I buy the Really Big Bag of Sour Patch Kids and soon everyone is munching on them. Currently friends at other fires are trying to get our helicopter assigned to them. Stay tuned. I am ready for the unexpected.