Monday, January 30, 2012

the opposite of fire

J. and I are on the ice. The air temperature hovers uneasily just above 30 degrees. Rain or snow, it could go either way.

There are some people who fight fire all year round. Prescribed burning in one season, suppression the next. Some people call around to Florida or Alabama to see what is happening, if they need help there. Although I complain about working in the office, I'm not one of those people.

In winter, I know I'll have my weekends free. I won't go to work not knowing if I will be home that night or three weeks later. I can make plans and actually keep them. Wear snowboard boots instead of fire boots on a Sunday. Go with my friends to see a band without taking my work cell phone. See someone I like more than once a week.

So we are ice fishing today. What this really means is that J. brings all the stuff to fish and I just show up. We drink Trout Slayer and talk about fire, because we can't help it, because after all these years it's a part of us.

Six months from now, a lightning storm might roll across the ridge south of us. I could find myself here in a different season, calling for air tankers, watching skycranes filling their buckets from the water I now stand on. And I will be exactly where I want to be then, just as I am now.

Outside our warm shelter it starts to snow. The ice cracks and settles. The forest sleeps under a cold sky. The clouds that will bring the fires of summer are still drops of water in an ocean somewhere. I'll be ready for it. But not quite yet.

Monday, January 23, 2012

away from the sun

I drive on dark streets. I play loud angry music because it's the only thing I can stand to listen to. Someone hits a deer and it runs into the median, twitches and lies still. There's nothing I can do. I keep going.

M. died this weekend. It's been years since I've seen him, yet his face is still clear to me. We were part of a group that came up to Alaska about the same time, young and excited to be there, to finally have permanent jobs. We loitered at the helibase, waiting for fires. M. would climb into the front seat of the AStar as I got into the Bell 212, our pilots joking with each other, swatting mosquitoes and laughing. The days lasted so long then, were full of so much promise.

After his helicopter accident, M. was never the same. He was there but somehow not really there, not like he had been before. Like my other friend M., who survived a crash three years later, he started down a lost and broken road. Our Alaska group started to disband. People took other jobs, moved south, got married, split up.

Sometimes you wake up and realize that there is nobody else alive who remembers certain moments you shared with someone. Small things, like the time Scott C. hiked up the Desolation Trail in the North Cascades to meet me, carrying a flower identification book. When he saw me, he stopped and smiled. Scott is gone now, vanished into Alaskan water in a small plane. I am left to remember that day and how the sun lit up his face.

I don't want any of you to go like this, too young and in ways like these. We should all still be waving at you from the helicopter as it shifts into translational lift. We should be sharing stories with you on the fireline deep into the night. Instead we say, "rest in peace," because there is really nothing else left to say.

M. and all the rest, I will carry our stories with me, so that someone still remembers. Your other friends have their own memories. We could try to put them together like a jigsaw puzzle and maybe we could come up with a picture of you that we would all recognize. You would probably laugh at how you seem to haunt us. It's not what you had planned when you got onto that plane, took off in that helicopter, hiked up that fireline.

Rest in peace. We are your memory keepers now.

Monday, January 16, 2012

someone that I used to know

Dear lost firefighter friends,

Of course you haven't really vanished. You're out there somewhere, living your life. It's just that I've lost you.

I met you in many different places. On a crew, where we used to run together on routes we gave silly names to make it seem more fun. On a fire assignment, where we were paired up to work with a helicopter with starter generator problems. At a helispot for a fire lookout project.

We might have eaten lunch together. I gave you my extra sandwich and you handed over your Snickers bar. We talked about books, or politics, or how red the sunset was that night. One woman was named after a star, and she told me the story about it as we both brushed our long hair, sitting up in our sleeping bags. A man talked with me about climbing Mt. Everest while we waited for our helicopters to return to an airstrip in Alaska. A group of us on a fire assignment drove a truck we named Barney, which soon became Club Barney when we found techno dance music on the radio. I ran through fire with some of you. I liked some of you a lot. I even loved one or two of you.

I thought we would know each other forever. But now I don't even remember some of your names. If a few of you passed me on the street, we'd probably keep on walking. There have been so many years, so many fires. The addresses and phone numbers we exchanged have long ago passed to others. After all, this is a gypsy kind of life and we are a vagabond tribe, crossing the map in search of the next fire, the next season.

Sometimes I'm surprised, like on a fire in Minnesota this year where a man standing next to me at morning briefing greeted me enthusiastically. "Hi! We were on a helicopter together in Taos twelve years ago!" he exclaimed. And there are a few fellow wanderers who have kept in touch no matter where they end up. My pilot friend BB who I haven't seen in 10 years resurfaces out of the blue every so often with a phone call. I'm an honorary auntie to my sweet friend L's kids, even though we haven't lived in the same town in a decade. Something other than fire binds us together.

As for the rest of you, I still think of you walking the fireline towards me. That long ago fire still burns. The smoke parts just enough for me to recognize you, and we both smile a little as we pass. Hello, my fire friend. It's been a long time. I miss you.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

snow day

There are a lot of reasons I should have gone to work on Wednesday. Who takes Wednesday off anyway? Fridays, now that's expected. Even Mondays on occasion, to extend the weekend. But Wednesday?

Here's what I probably should have done: Write a plan or two. Track down a completion letter from a class I taught last summer. Update the aviation qualifications spreadsheet. Seasonal hiring. But here I have to apologize to all the earnest, would-be helitack crewmembers who are calling me every day. I know what it's like to be in your place. I was a temporary employee for 10 years. Back then, I would have liked to have thought that my (hopefully) future boss was sitting in her office chair where she belonged in the middle of the week, calling my references and starting the arduous process to hire me.

Sorry. The sun was shining. The snow at the ski hill was perfect. The company was excellent. It was the best Wednesday in a long time. I hope you can forgive me, future seasonal employees, and wait one more day. I'll do your paperwork and help you out in any way I can. As long as I can have days like this every once in awhile.

A great day for soft boots AND carving boards!

Monday, January 9, 2012

open doors

About a month ago, I applied for a detail to help teach prescribed burning and fire suppression in Ethiopia. These international programs seem to be somewhat of a well-kept secret within the Forest Service. There doesn't appear to be a mailing list; you have to know someone to hear about opportunities. Can you blame them? If I got to go overseas for work, I wouldn't tell anyone about it either. I sent in my application and crossed my fingers. I had visions of finally getting a government passport, getting paid to travel, and setting the grasslands of Africa on fire.

Emails that contain the word "unfortunately..." rarely contain good news. I'm not going to Africa. However, every good firefighter has a backup plan. Taking advantage of my supervisor's relief that I wasn't fleeing at an inconvenient time, I quickly asked for some time off.

So in a few short months, I'll be headed to Bhutan. I won't be carrying a shovel or wearing Nomex clothes. Instead I'll be trekking in the clouds, in a country where Buddhist monasteries cling to the sides of cliffs and they measure the "Gross National Happiness" of the people. Now the fun part starts: looking at maps, buying new gear, and reading trip reports. This should offset the prospect of sketchy airlines and 12 hour layovers in places like Doha and Dubai.

Tiger's Nest Monastery, Bhutan

When I come back, my employees will be opening up the helibase. They'll be moving the pilot and mechanic lounge (our fancy name for a FEMA trailer) into place. Fire season may be starting in the southwest. And I won't have any regrets about not being chosen to go to Ethiopia. Because, as trite as it sounds, when one door closes, another one really does open. I'm ready to run through it!

Chomolhari Peak, Bhutan

Thursday, January 5, 2012

the fires of January

The FMO group huddles around a phone early in the morning. It is January 5, and there are fires on the reservation, 50,000 acres at last report. Wind-driven, they are threatening a boarding school and other structures.

A fire in northwest Montana in January is a rare and amazing event. But we have almost no snow this year. It rains on the ski hill and turns to ice. I take my snowshoes to Round Meadow and end up hiking instead. I might get to run on the trail every month this year. Some people are encouraged by this, and by the lack of snow over most of the country. "It's going to be a big fire year," they say.

Round Meadows cross country ski trail, New Year's Eve 2011

In reality, although a lot of people try, there is really no way at this point to predict the summer. Spring rain can drown a season. Lightning can track far to the south, sparing a forest so dry that it is closed to the public. Visitors can be exceptionally well-behaved with matches, or throw burning cigarettes out with wild abandon. Southwest monsoons can come early or linger on the horizon. There's no knowing.

We all volunteer for the new fires. I think about the possibility of spending my birthday on a fire for the first time in 24 years. In the end, three engines go, staffed by AFMOs and a hotshot superintendent. The size of the fires is downgraded to 18,000 acres "due to more accurate mapping", a common occurrence. Light rain falls. It won't last long.

Still, this unexpected winter fire makes me anticipate next season, opening the gate for the first time to let the fuel truck in, the feel of translational lift on an early summer morning, the smell of smoke in the hills. These are the things that keep us coming back year after year. Anything could happen. In a way, we are addicted to this uncertainty, to rumors of lightning and rain. Last season is over. I look forward to the next one, whatever it may bring.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

the sun still shines when you're not around

Here's the truth: we are all replaceable. Try this: walk away. For a month, a year, whatever. Even leave Hurricane Katrina-like chaos behind you. Come back after awhile. See that the spaces you left behind have filled in. You probably won't even be able to tell where they were in the first place.

Fire people have a hard time learning this. We hate to miss anything. Rumors of lightning will keep us hanging around town. Seeing a smoke column, or worse, the helicopter flying over, when we're on days off, can give us fits of remorse, even if we had a wonderful time not working.

I used to have a hard time leaving. What if there was a fire? What if the holy grail of assignments, helicopter manager in Hawaii, came through? (Still waiting on this one).  Even during the off-season, I worried: what if there was an important aviation issue? What if one of my crewmembers needed a copy of their master record?

Four years ago I had to leave. My marriage was falling apart; there was nothing to save. So I did what any sane person would do. I went to Nepal. By myself.

In Nepal, nobody cared that I was in charge of an aviation program back home. To the street vendors in Thamel, I was another, presumably rich tourist. "Marijuana, ma'am?" they asked hopefully as I walked down the street, or, "Shoe shine?" even though I wore running shoes. To the group of British people I joined for a three week hike and climb, I was another trekker, albeit with a funny accent and odd eating habits. "Namaste, didi (hello, sister)," the Sherpas and porters said as I passed them on the trail, as they  said to hundreds of other clients. I didn't have any responsibilities. All I had to do was walk, pack my gear in the morning, and keep up with my rope team. There were no meetings, plans to write, or people to supervise. Nobody needed me.

Mera Glacier

On summit day, we climbed the Mera glacier. I followed Faye, making sure to keep the right amount of slack in the rope between us. It was too cold and windy to stop much so we kept walking, our crampon points biting into the snow. I didn't think about fire as I ascended the fixed rope. Whatever was happening at home would go on without me. I was exactly where I wanted to be.

From the summit of Mera Peak; Mt. Everest in the distance

Lightning strikes; fires grow and die whether we are there to see it happen or not. People walk in and out of your life. Usually there's nothing you can do about it. So you might as well go to your Nepal, whatever yours is. If the stars all align, I'm going back there soon to climb another mountain. Stay tuned.