Sunday, June 17, 2012

the solace of uncertainty

It's only two acres, the land I'm thinking of buying. It was once part of someone's pasture, level and grassy with a few tall trees at the back fence. Maybe they loved it, but fell on hard times and had to sell, carving up their ranch into small lots, or maybe they can't believe their good fortune to be able to ask so much for such small parcels. I probably won't ever know.

I think about this land and sometimes I drive by it. It's only about 3 miles from the house I rent. I think about the fire lookout style house I want to build on it. And yet I can't commit. Although I bought and sold two houses in the past, this seems like a big step. Although everyone told me to buy permanent license plates for my truck, that I'd save money if I stayed two years, I couldn't bring myself to do it.

As a firefighter, you live about half the year in a state of unpredictability. People learn not to count on you being there for holidays, weddings, birthdays. Even if you're not out there following the lightning as it moves from Arizona to Alaska to Oregon, you come home well after dark on those long, soft summer days. And yet, friends of mine seem to have no problem commiting to a settled kind of life. They get married, have kids, send roots deep into the community. They belong to a place instead of just to themselves.

I have never been able to do this. Since I left my childhood home, I haven't lived anywhere for more than five years. At first I could blame this on the seasonal lifestyle, the need to leave small timber communities every six months to find work. But I have had a permanent job for over 15 years now. I don't have any excuse for the desire to find out what might be around the next corner, to pack everything up and just go.

But maybe this isn't such a bad thing. I cringe at the classic job interview question: where do you see yourself in five, ten years? I make something up that they want to hear, but I don't know, nor do I want to. Strangely, having choices feels safe. Whenever I try to make a plan, something unexpected happens: a helicopter crash, a divorce, a chance meeting with someone who will change my life. I balance on the edge between home and the unknown. With each new place I ask: could this be it, the one that will keep me off the road? And the answer is always, maybe.

So I dream about lying down in the tall grass of the former pasture and calling it mine. Maybe I will, or maybe in a year or so I will be in a new place watching fire walk through a different forest. Either way, my mind and heart will be open to every possibility.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

as the rotor turns

Lately I've noticed a plethora of really bad reality shows on TV. Not that I watch them, of, of course not. But it makes me think. Why couldn't my crew be on one? After all, there are shows about people living in a house and partying (Jersey Shore), wives of basketball players, though inexplicably none of them seem to be currently married to basketball players (Basketball Wives), and groups of impossibly good-looking people who for some reason can't find anyone to date except on a TV show (The Bachelor). My crew must be AT LEAST as interesting, right?

I even have a name: As the Rotor Turns. It would star an attractive brunette; Catherine Zeta-Jones comes to mind. (Here's where I need to tell my friends reading this to stop laughing). It would be full of intrigue, death-defying stunts, and drama. All real, of course. But here's where my idea falters a bit. On my crew, we actually get along, most of the time. Even brush fits don't last long, usually triggered by several weeks of bad weather, messiness of others, or sickness instead of family secrets, betrayal, or mean gossip. Unlike some pilots and mechanics I have encountered, ours are relatively drama-free and can often be found sleeping or reading books. So, sadly, we probably won't be making $25,000 just to show up at a party anytime soon like the Jersey Shore kids. Here is what a typical episode would probably consist of:

Attractive Brunette (aka me): The crew is way too quiet! They must be up to something!

Cameraman (wakes up from a nap) : Finally!

A.B. (bursts into the hangar): All right, what are you guys doing?

Young, Enthusiastic Crewmember: I'm fixing this chainsaw.

Two Veteran Crewmembers : We're patching the leaks in the chase truck.

Third Crewmember (brandishes a mop): Um, cleaning?

A.B. (deflated): Well, is anyone mad? (Blank stares from Crewmembers). Sad? (More blank stares). Hungry?

Cameraman: I should never have quit that Kardashian show. These are the most boring people on earth!

Of course, camera crews are never around when the really interesting things are happening, like when I evacuated civilians from in front of a fire, or when the window cracked and fell out of the helicopter in flight. But for the most part, I'll take the relatively drama free life we live on the crew. I don't really want to vote anyone off the island anyway.

What the people on The Bachelor are really saying

Friday, June 8, 2012

some thoughts on rain.

It rains. And rains. And rains some more. Locals say this is typical for June, but even they are starting to look skeptical. The rivers are at flood stage. It snows in the mountains. The crew hikes into a proposed  tree planting unit to establish a sling site and finds a foot of snow. A fire crew without fires is a sad thing. It's only a matter of time before morale starts to plummet.

With all this precipitation, I've had a chance to reflect on the many types of rain that a fire crew might encounter. While it may all look similar, there are in fact subtle differences. Here are a few kinds I have identified:

Season-delaying rain: This typically starts in May and can continue into the summer months. If it lasts too long, it can turn into its soul-sucking cousin, no-season rain. At first, firefighters tend to be optimistic, forecasting that at least all this rain will cause lots of vegetation to grow, creating fuel for future fires. After awhile, they just tend to growl, get bitter and lose all hope.

Project-stopping rain: This type of precipitation usually occurs when the weather forecast is for 80 degrees and clear skies, and elaborate plans have been set in motion, such as ordering a helicopter with a $400 cancellation fee, getting people over from the neighboring forest, and leaving expensive gear out in the open. Project-stopping rain often leads to desperate statements as, "It looks like it's clearing up! Let's try it!" while equipment is slowly floating away and your crew is succumbing to hypothermia.

Pack test rain: This always occurs when you have to take your annual pack test (3 miles in 45 minutes with a 45 pound pack). Generally you end up wearing several pounds extra in wet clothes while the pack test administrator giggles smugly at you from a warm, dry vehicle, telling you to pick up the pace.

Type 1 rain: This occurs when you fail to get out of the way of a large helicopter water drop. This is a true rookie move. Don't let your crew see this happen.

Day 4 rain: As the name implies, this occurs early in a fire assignment while you are still counting your blessings for having escaped your dreary home unit for a supposedly lucrative two weeks away. If it keeps up, you'll be dragging your soggy, not much richer butt home on day 6 to what? Yes, more rain.

Season-ending rain: Assuming there actually is a fire season, this is the deluge that ends it. The pilot will be found sleeping much more than usual. The mechanic may be cranky. The crew hunkers in their hiding places. You actually have to attend mandatory training. You buy your ski pass. It will snow soon.

For now, we joke about the rain. We run in it, cut trees in it, and fix the leaks in our chase truck. We're a fire crew with no fires, with snow in June, but we are making the best of it. So far.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

last flight

The news is sparse and slow to arrive, trickling like drops of water through cyberspace. A heavy air tanker has crashed this evening on a fire on the Utah/Nevada border. The pilot and co-pilot are dead, which is the way this story usually goes. The air tankers are grounded again; this isn't the first time. There will be an investigation. The fire will eventually go out whether we fight it or not. The black spot in the high desert will fade and disappear into memory.

I have heard this story so many times before: different names, different places, but it is still the same. I have known some of these lost pilots, sat next to them in helicopters, waved as they took off to yet another lightning strike in the hills. Would they think this end was worth it? There's no way of knowing. We always say we would like to go doing what we loved, but in that moment, when you hear the sound of tearing metal and see the ground rushing up to meet you, all you want to do is stay around a little longer.

Rest in peace, Tanker 11 crew.