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.