Wednesday, November 28, 2012


June in Wyoming is hit or miss. It could be cold and rainy, or it could be on fire. This summer it was burning.

I followed another firefighter down the ridge. "Do you know the way?" the crew boss asked him as we left. "Yes," he said confidently. We dropped down through dry sagebrush and into a quiet aspen stand. My companion looked around. "This doesn't look familiar," he said to himself.

"Do you want me to turn on my GPS?" I asked, knowing we were going the wrong way.

"No, not yet," he said, and we kept walking, until it was patently obvious that we had taken the wrong route. "Maybe we should look at it," he said.

Finally, after contouring around a wet meadow and crossing a creek, our feet were on gravel. The crew boss pulled up in his truck. "Thought you knew the way," he said.

Almost anyone who has spent time fighting fire has been lost sometime, although we don't like to call it that. One of my crewmembers preferred "temporarily misplaced." After all, you can usually find your way out, given a sun angle, a compass or a map. Some areas are more challenging than others, though. In interior Alaska, where almost everything was flat, I once misplaced my entire crew in a maze of similar tussock fields and black spruce stands. They had scattered into the trees after being told to stay put in a meadow. Luckily I spied them before they realized anything was amiss.

On other fires, field observers and safety officers have gone astray. "Give me a hoot," is often heard on the radio from firefighters trying to navigate to each others' positions. On a fire this summer we realized that Turbo, our division supervisor trainee, had no idea how to use a compass, as he peered confusedly at the red arrow. Helicopters even get lost, heading for fires 20 miles away instead of the one right in front of them. It happens.

Sometimes people get lost not in the woods but inside their own lives. First B. and then the other B., both firefighters who couldn't find their way out of the dark forests of their minds and took their own lives, both in the same month. There were no maps that could help them retrace their steps and figure out how they got to that place where nothing looked right. Before them there were others I knew, who drank themselves to death or were found alone with the drugs that killed them. For them there were no waypoints, no compasses, no voice they would listen to that could direct them to a place that was safe.

I sometimes daydream when I walk in the woods alone, and because of this, I often find myself in a place that seems unfamiliar. When this happens, at first I feel anxious. Then I stop and look around. I find my tracks in the mud or snow. I see where the sun is moving or where the early evening stars are scattered across the dark sky. I start to recognize where I have been. I know that eventually I can always find my true north, and from there, find my way home.

Monday, November 19, 2012

what I learned from the boys

When I started fighting fire in the late '80s, very few women were choosing this profession. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by men. While this might sound pretty great (I've been known to sing, "It's raining men, hallelujah" when some smokejumpers parachute into my fire), sometimes this was pretty difficult in the early days. I had to prove myself, show that I could run just as fast, hike with the same amount of weight, could keep up. Occasionally I had to ignore crude comments; when I once tried to report someone, my crew boss said, "Take it as a compliment". But for the most part, it's been like having a lot of brothers. They look out for me, joke around with me, and (really important) share their chocolate with me.

Through the years I've learned a lot from the fire guys I've worked alongside.  This is not to say that there aren't awesome fire gals out there or men who shouldn't be anywhere near a forest. But for the most part my passport to guy world has expanded my horizons. Here are some of the things I've learned from them:

Make a decision.  When asked if they are available for a fire assignment, most guys say yes. They don't say that they could maybe go, if nobody else wants to. They don't have to check with their girlfriends. They don't agonize over the fact that they haven't really done that job in years and they might suck at it. Sometimes their decisions might be a little suspect (such as ordering four blivets in the face of an oncoming rainstorm), but at least they make them. As a lifelong waffler, I appreciate this about guys.

Say what you mean. When a guy says something, he generally means it. (There are exceptions: when an ex-boyfriend said "I love you forever and want to marry you" that really meant, "I like you, until I meet someone else," but I digress). Being around men all the time forced me to become more direct. Now I sometimes act as a translator: "OK, when she said 'it's fine', what she really meant was..."

Don't take things so personally.  Guys make fun of each other. They call each other unflattering nicknames. They get mad and talk about it and get over it. Working with a bunch of fire dudes, I had to grow a tougher skin. This wasn't a bad thing. Underneath it all, they really do care about each other.

You are the bomb and everyone thinks so too. Fire guys are usually not short on ego. They walk around like they own the place, and assume that everyone else recognizes their greatness, because why wouldn't they? While occasionally this self-assurance is misplaced, what I learned from these guys was that if I acted as if I was confident even if I wasn't, people believed it, and sooner or later, I did too.

Find solutions.  At my old base, we had a washer and dryer, but we knew that once it broke, we would not be getting another. I had to restrict the crew to only washing their nomex and workout clothes. Seeing T. toting a large basket of laundry containing several shirts that looked like the ones he wore to work, I reminded him of the rules. He looked puzzled. "These ARE my workout clothes!" he said. I quizzed him further. "So, you're saying you wear a T-shirt to work out, and then you wash it and wear the same shirt to work in?" "Yep," he said, "And then wear it to go out to the bar later!" As a female with separate outfits to run in, go to the gym in, to work in, and to go out in, I realized that T. (and many guys like him) had not only tripled his wardrobe options, but also had found a loophole in which he could do ALL his laundry at work! Smart!

Laugh more. When you see a group of guys hanging out on the fireline, sooner or later there will be some laughing involved. Granted, they are probably talking about something dumb like poop, but they are having fun. I've never giggled as much as I have around my goofy, sweet guy friends. They torture me with Crossfit moves and get excited about some silly space jump. They bring me brownies from the Glacier Grill and are happy to see me when I show up on fires. They call me "dude" but compliment me when I wear a skirt. I'm happy to know them.

Thanks guys.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

dear gym

Dear Gym,

As you can see, I'm back. I have to say I didn't really miss you. In fact, I cheated on you a few times with the hotshot weight room at work. I doubt you missed me, as you still extracted money from me all summer long. Your managers did, though; I received several form emails that began condescendingly, "We know there are lots of reasons not to work out. Let us help you get back in the gym." So let me fill you in on what I was doing while I wasn't visiting you:

I burned stuff.

I hiked up to 10 miles a day on this fire.
I helped save this cabin.
I hauled these propane tanks around

I hiked a long way out of this fire.

Now it's winter and I'm back to see you. Surprisingly (or maybe not), the people who were here before I left are still here and look exactly the same. There's Knee Socks, who really gets after it, attacking the elliptical like it's going to get away, and Weight Room Dominator, who monopolizes multiple pieces of equipment at a time. Yoga Girl, whose physique I envy, is here, along with Six Pack, who must never eat a potato chip, ever. There's the herd running to nowhere on the treadmills, and the Talky McTalkersons who socialize more than they work out. I wonder how they stay motivated. I suspect that if I didn't have to carry heavy stuff up hills for work I might slack off more. Who knows: after 25 years of fighting fire it just may be a habit.

So now the gyms will be full of us, firefighters without fires, doing Crossfit and lifting weights and hiking up the stepmill. Given a nice day, though, don't look for me. I'll be on the ski hill or on some snowshoes somewhere. Tell them to send me all the e-mails they want. You'll be around when I come back.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A cow's tale

We gazed uneasily at our helibase medevac pad. This was intended to be the landing spot if a helicopter needed to drop off an injured person from the fire to be picked up by a waiting ambulance. It had stayed peacefully empty since we established the helibase at the Kraft Springs Fire. However, it was now occupied.

A cow lay on the pad marker, about where the skids would come to rest. A large cow. And, well, a dead cow.

Setting up a helibase in an active cow pasture has its hazards. Every day we would pile in vehicles and gently herd the cattle away from the helicopters. They were especially fond of the K-Max and liked to graze in its vicinity. People were assigned to camp next to each aircraft in case a wayward cow decided to lean on them. However, we hadn't planned on this latest development.

Moving the helibase was not an option. The overhead team wanted it where it was. How hard could it be, we wondered, as the temperature climbed into the 90s and an interesting odor began to float our way. We would just contact the rancher, and he would come move the carcass.

We soon learned that in eastern Montana, ranchers don't tend to rush over when cows died on the range. The cow stayed. We held an emergency meeting (upwind).

"Just go into camp and have breakfast," John, my deck coordinator, said. "I will have it taken care of by the time you get back." Gratefully, I fled the scene. Driving back, you always had to make sure not to miss the turnoff into the helibase as it was not marked. This time, there was no issue. This was the sight that greeted me (and everyone else driving by on the main road):

John approached, pleased with himself. "I took two of the lead lines and attached them to two hooves," he said. "Then I attached the other ends to the truck, and dragged it out to the road." He brightened up. "And then, I found the orange paint in the helibase kit that we never use, and decided to make a sign for the helibase. Now everyone can find us!"

The cow was gone in two hours. And yet, its memory remains. Many people who see the picture on my wall in the office recognize it. "I was there!" they say. And this photo has somehow even made it into a national powerpoint presentation on signs in the Forest Service.

Afterward, John only had one regret. "The smell and the bloating didn't bother me," he claimed. "I'm just sorry I spelled the helibase name wrong."

Friday, November 2, 2012

the good crew: a recipe

In my 25 seasons of firefighting I have worked with many crews, some memorable and some best forgotten. During this time I have had plenty of time to ponder what makes a good crew and what makes another turn into a Survivor-like divided tribe ready to vote each other off the island. I have concluded that there are certain essential components of a successful crew. They are:

The Scrounger: This person can build elaborate fire camp furniture from a chunk of inch and a half hose and some pole size trees. They will happily wander off and return with all kinds of swag to make life easier. Sniffling crew members? This person will find all the vitamin C and Airborne within a 5 mile radius. Like a ninja they move through camp, procuring cool stuff. The supply unit will never know what hit them.

The Charmer: Cranky finance lady? No chocolate milk left at the caterer? This person can make it all better with their natural charisma. Nobody can resist their smoldering gaze and friendly phone voice. Send this one in when you really need something. Sometimes the Charmer is also a Scrounger which is an unbeatable combination.

The Fixer: Need motel rooms at short notice on a holiday weekend in a resort town? Incident management team being vague on details of a mission? This crew member is all about solutions.They can handle any logistical nightmare thrown at them and look good doing it. This is your wingman or wingwoman. Do whatever you can to keep them.

The Computer Nerd: Unless you really enjoy spending hours on the phone with the Help Desk and dealing with the 404 not found error, this person is essential. Whether it's adding a printer or getting you permanent admin rights, they are worth their weight in ink toner and G2 pens.

The Comic Relief: Need I say more? Every crew needs one of these (J we are happy you got your dream job but we miss you).

Take these ingredients and stir well. It will be hiring season before you know it.