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.