Sunday, February 26, 2012


At the end of a fire, whether you are lucky or unlucky, depending on your perspective, you might be assigned to rehab. Rehab is not universally liked, usually because it is far from any type of flame, you don't generally get hazard pay or long hours, and it is often (pick one or all) raining/snowing/cold. At this point your crew is usually perilously close to the tipping point, where little annoyances become huge obstacles, the true whiners are coming out, and the camp crud is spreading like the wildfire you are not on.

Still, rehab is necessary, often to fix the damage we do in extinguishing the fire. We put in hundreds of water bars to prevent erosion. We pull the same brush back into the fireline that we cut out of it when the fire was burning. We flush-cut stumps, and once, absurdly, were ordered to smear dirt on them so the public wouldn't see evidence of rampant chainsawing. We reclaim the land.

There are places in our own lives that we can take back. I believe this. Instead of avoiding a location that had meaning before a relationship went bad, I will go back there, with someone else or alone, and have a new experience that is even better. After all, that moment is gone, was gone almost before it began. You can never step in the same river twice. But you can go back to it, and look at it in a different way.

After my helicopter accident, I drove out to the spot where it happened. It was one of those heartbreakingly beautiful late autumn days. I walked around and looked at the scars the skids had made in the dirt. I picked up a few pieces that the investigation team had missed. I sat in the tall grass for awhile. I made that place mine.

 Reclamation, on the fire ground or in our own lives, doesn't erase everything that has happened. We can't unscorch the trees, or completely hide the evidence of a fireline. But we can put in water bars. We can spread native seed. Similarly, we can't make a person kinder, or stop most bad things from happening. But we can go back to where those things happened and take those places back. We can sit in the sun and see how much has changed, and everything that is still possible.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

ashes and bread

Firefighters care about food a lot, and by that I mean we're sort of obsessed with it. At the helibase, it doesn't take much coaxing to get someone to fire up the barbecue (found at the dump and hauled back to the station by the crew). Any cookies that appear get a lot of attention. We stuff food in our packs, trying to gauge what 36 hours without resupply might look like. My former crew was overjoyed when they discovered Spam with bacon in it. Yes, that really exists.
When I first started fighting fire, we had the dreaded Meals Ready to Eat. No, not the ones they have now, with the heaters in them, which actually resemble real food. These didn't have burritos or tortellini or anything all that edible in them. Tabasco sauce, applied liberally, was a necessity. Caterers on fires back then had never met a vegetable they liked. I lived on other people's Snickers bars, potato chips, and bread from the ubiquitous ham sandwiches, after throwing away the ham. "Score!" we'd say, after scouring a helispot and finding some left-behind smokejumper food.
Smokejumpers get good food. They also get a beer named after them.

 Over the years, the food has gotten a lot better. Because of wars, we now get better MREs, ones that we can actually heat up. There are vegetarian lunches, although some caterers seem confused about what a vegetarian really is (tuna in a veggie lunch? really?). Fruit and salads are no longer endangered species at fire camp. Locals appear out of nowhere with baked goods. It's possible to actually gain weight on a fire assignment, instead of going to bed hungry chewing on your own regret and sadness.

Still, crazily enough, I sometimes miss the old days, before bottled water, flying crews in from the fireline for showers, and work/rest guidelines. Although we were constantly hungry, tired, and covered in dirt, there was something about being out there in a place where not everyone could make it. We were just a little closer to the edge back then. Those of us who are still around remember that. We keep looking for that place. Only with better food.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

to my friends who left fire

I won't see you on the fireline anymore. We won't ever patrol the green together, crashing through the brush looking for errant embers. We won't sit next to each other, field sharpening our pulaskis and gossiping, bartering lunch items. I will never again look over my shoulder and see you smiling in the back seat of the helicopter.

You're not firefighters anymore. You're nurses, teachers, fulltime moms, and pilots. You're back at school. Some of you stayed with the government, but in professional jobs that come with an office and a title that doesn't include the word "technician". Some of you once worked for me in temporary jobs, but now your salary surpasses mine. When you sign your name on a document, it means something. People respect you.

Sometimes I'm jealous of you. You get days off every week. You can even take a vacation during the summer. Unlike me, you will never have someone that you dated say to you, "You should probably just date another firefighter instead." (Um, thanks?) Your position description will never again include the words "moves dirt." Your crew will never be called to the main office to move furniture because you are the "fire crew", while office folks, who I will see later that day in the gym lifting weights, refuse to carry anything. When you go to work, you are pretty sure you will be home that night, and not three weeks later. You can get a puppy anytime you want. You won't be kicked out of your job at age 57, ready or not, because back in the day, 57 was old and firefighters were supposed to be "young and vigorous."  Every year, for just a few minutes, I think about leaving too.

Still. Don't you miss it? Walking out onto the helibase first thing in the morning, before the mechanics even get there, the helicopters sleeping with blades tied down, the day bright and full of possibility. Driving the engine down a narrow road chasing smoke, navigating by guess and intuition. The snarl of the saw, the sight of the night on fire, the feeling of translational lift.

I've done this job so long I don't know how to do anything else. It's a part of me now. I took a different road than you, my friends who left. We won't ever drive back from a fire together late at night, so tired we just want to lean on each other and sleep, our hair and clothes saturated with smoke. But strangely enough, the twists and turns in our separate paths sometimes bring us back together. I'll tell you about fire. You will tell me about who you are now. We'll laugh like we did back then. See you all soon.

2003, Grand Canyon North Rim

Thursday, February 16, 2012

ready to burn

Three of us drive to the big city, eco-conscious in a Forest Service hybrid. We are headed for that winter ritual, off-season fire training. Despite a stop for energy drinks and Sour Patch Kids, it's hard to be enthusiastic. There's snow on the ground. Two days of powerpoint slides loom in the distance.

However, we make the best of it. Pilots and other firefighters I haven't seen in months give me hugs. There's free beer at the brewery. I get to go out to dinner on Valentine's Day with three nice guys. Most importantly, taking this class gets us our annual aerial ignition refresher. Now we can disperse and for yet another year, legally burn stuff from the air.

Back home, we drag out the PSD machine and bench test it, making sure that the plastic spheres filled with potassium permanganate will ignite when injected with antifreeze. We time it: twenty or thirty seconds till ignition; perfect. I order a pallet of Flash 21, the gelling agent for the helitorch fuel. Burn bosses send me their plans for review. Then we wait: wait for the temperature to rise, for that brief window between snowmelt and greenup when it all becomes possible. Sometimes this only lasts one day, and then it's too late. If this happens, we pack up the helitorch and the barrels, clean the PSD machine and put it away. In the fall we will try again.

Now the burn units sleep under snow. Whether they will see fire this spring, nobody can say. Still, we will be ready.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

running for Sherry

It's cold. I have a fever. The trail resembles a luge track dusted with fresh snow. But this isn't about me, or about fire. Today is about Sherry.

Sherry Arnold was a teacher, runner, and mother who lived in eastern Montana. By all accounts she was very loved. She went out for a run in early January and never came back. Two men have been arrested in her disappearance. Sherry is still missing.

This morning I'm taking part in a virtual run for Sherry. I start up the trail. I'm slow. I struggle up hills that surveyors wouldn't notice. I run the first mile and a half a full four minutes slower than the time in September that I ran here with my friend who wore barefoot shoes. Then, winter was only a whisper on the horizon. Today, the spikes on my shoes slip on the ice. There is only one set of footprints past the overlook, and nobody's been on the Family Loop lately. I'm alone.

Right now people all over the world are running for Sherry. I imagine us, breathing in unison, running with others or on solitary trails, on city streets or country roads or leaving our footprints in the snow. We are connected, although most of us will never meet.

At the turnaround it feels easier. I look at the snowy trees and think about the damage that people can do, how hurt can spread like ripples in the water when you throw a rock into a lake, moving far past the point of impact. I can't help Sherry now, or the other women who have been taken for no reason. But I can act with kindness. I can appreciate the people who stay around, and realize that the ones who walked out of my life thought they needed to, although I might never understand why. And I can run today to celebrate a life. I hope you can see all of us today, Sherry. This is for you.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dear Cubicle

Dear Office Cubicle,

I'm looking forward to breaking up with you. This shouldn't come as a surprise. You've heard me talk about you, and not just out in the main office where you couldn't hear. You knew this day was coming from the beginning.

Yes, we've had some good times. I have to admit, you can be kind of cozy, with your high walls on three sides, and the space heater blasting. Although you are nowhere near a window, which is kind of a dealbreaker, your proximity to an exit makes the sprint to freedom pretty easy. Also, you are close to a storage room where I can do the Superman change into my workout clothes. There's even a Smokey Bear costume stored here, so if I wanted to, I could put it on and run through the halls growling. You're next to the dispatchers, who always know everything first. I can easily spy on my supervisor. Sometimes there's cake in the break room not far from you.

However, you knew all along my heart belonged at the helibase. Sure, out there I sit in an ancient trailer that attracts hordes of flies and shakes when anyone walks in it. Sometimes we have to kick the printer and the fax to get it to work. The water has been known to shut off with no warning. It's better to not even mention the bathroom. But there's something about the place that keeps me coming back.

I'm sorry, Office Cubicle, but I belong out there. There are trails to run on, and bears in the woods. There's mountains instead of Costco. I always know what the weather is doing, instead of having to get up and go find a window. After work it's only a few miles up the road to the national park. There's even a lot of hotshots around the place. What more could a girl ask for?

So, dear Cubicle, I've enjoyed our time together, but in a month I'll be moving on. I'll be back, though, to check on you and see how you are doing in the cubie farm. I will leave something interesting with you for the next inhabitant to find. I'm sure we'll get together again next winter. Until then, everything that happens in the cubicle stays in the cubicle, ok? See you after next fire season.

Friday, February 3, 2012


I recently heard the comment, "If I didn't fight fire, I wouldn't understand why anyone does it." And why would you? Firefighters talk a lot about the adrenaline rush, but in reality, much of our work is arduous, underpaid, and honestly sometimes kind of boring (spend a few days in the rain doing inventory around the station or sharpening tools and you'll see what I mean). If you have what we firefighters call a "real" job, and you've never walked a fireline after dark watching the night burn, here are a few reasons why we keep coming back:

Meeting old and new friends in interesting places

Seeing our beautiful country from above

Watching fire run through the forest like something alive

Rappelling into a fire. I mean, really. Do I need to say anything else?

Bringing someone home to their family in a search and rescue

Lighting stuff on fire

Flying in Lamas (And Astars, and L4s, and 58Ts, and 407s, and 212s, and...)

A few days with a couple of friends on a little fire in the middle of nowhere

Helping save people's houses (and sometimes the people)

Being a part of something that matters