Saturday, March 30, 2013


Seasonal hiring has been extremely frustrating this year.  Despite applicants writing charmingly that they know how to ride unicycles, or that they can run a 4:19 mile, the long, drawn-out process, incomprehensible decisions by personnel specialists, and budget problems are getting on my last nerve.  So now it's time for something silly.

You should always have a backup plan, as escape route if your job gets too much to handle.  J. and I have decided that being pirates would be pretty awesome.  No, not the scary drug-running, hostage-taking kind who prowl the seas these days.  THIS kind:

There are many advantages to being a pirate.  We have come up with these:

1.  Hanging out in tropical waters.  It would be pretty warm most of the time.

2.  You could drink rum at work and not get fired. Not that I like rum, but still.  You could.

3.  You can say things like ahoy and matey and land ho!, which usually don't come up in normal conversation.

4.  If you get injured, you don't have to go work at a desk.  You can get eye patches and hooks for hands and it just looks normal.

5.  Parrots.  Need I say more?

6.  It's pretty impossible to fire anyone in our current jobs, but walking the plank would be simple and effective.

7.  There's not very much cool stuff to plunder in our fire caches.  Who wants to walk off with nomex?  But as a pirate, you get really good stuff, like gold coins.  Then you can bury it, too.

8.  The clothes are pretty great.

9.  Pirates don't do paperwork.  They don't need to hire anyone either.  People come to them (in one way or another).

10. You can give yourself a new name, like Bubonic Annie Straw or Shaniqua the Enforcer.  People will be scared.

So now all we need are three bad consecutive days at work and a ship and we are all set!  Come aboard, matey!


Monday, March 25, 2013

they called him "beauty"...and other fire nicknames

It's a tricky thing, a nickname.  For the most part, you can't just show up at a new job demanding to be called something other than your given name.  There is usually backlash.  People either don't use it, or add something unintended to it, a rhyme perhaps, or a reference to an act of buffoonery committed by you.  Ideally, nicknames should precede you, or be bestowed upon you.  Extra points if your nickname is prefaced by "The."

Firefighters seem especially fond of nicknames.  The most obvious are based on last names (this is how "Beauty" got his; it was a partial version of his name.  Luckily he was too big to mess with).  Others are quickly earned through a specific incident.  "Bear Bait" was visited by bears on fires too many times for it to be a coincidence, we believed.   "Magellan" got lost once in the woods.  "Tomcat" liked the ladies.  "Bucket Boy" came into being when a co-worker questioned whether helicopter buckets of water were being manifested correctly.  He hasn't fought fire in 10 years, but he still announces, "this is Bucket Boy," when he calls.  Then there were the legendary "Tundra Babes", three of us who spent three weeks on the fireline without a shower.  To this day, the "Tundra Babes" are remembered fondly by those who were there. 

Unbeknownst to him, an excitable division supervisor trainee became known as "Turbo".  On the same fire, qualified division supervisor Bob became "Boboon", a mix of his name and "buffoon", but this was not that mean.  He didn't know how to use a compass, and remained confused about the wind direction for days.  Finally, he was banished to patrol a road that had been burned days ago.

On one incident, I was known as "Fuzzy Bunny," which morphed from "Mama Rabbit."  With me were "Hard Charger" and "Mad Philly" (he was from Philadelphia).  Our purple truck, which started honking in the middle of the night for no reason, was called, of course, "Barney", or "Club Barney", if techno music was on.

Pilots seem to attract nicknames on a regular basis.  One helibase had a surfeit of Joes, so "Hollywood Joe" (he had been in some movies) and "Low Joe" (who constantly complained about how little he was paid) came into being.  "Whopper Bob" was a big guy who liked the sound of rotors turning.  A pilot with the name of Leroy Brown inevitably attracted the prefix "Bad" and a new version of the song.

A nickname can be fun or a responsibility (if you are a man who has been called "Big Sexy", you can't just let yourself go).  Sometimes they follow you for a long time.  Just ask someone who knew the "Tundra Babes" about 15 years ago.  "Tundra Babes rule!" they will probably say, even now.

The tundra babes, acting crazy.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

how hiring is like internet dating

So, I once joined an online dating site for a couple of months. I figured that if I was going to make fun of it, I might as well try it (this also explains a short-lived Twitter account I had for work).  I soon fled the cyber love scene, overwhelmed by a spectrum of weirdness.  Recently though, while mired in the midst of seasonal hiring, I had a sense of deja vu.  It all seemed so...familiar, and not just because all hiring is done electronically now.

1.  A lot of folks just don't know what to say.  Here is an excerpt from a sample online dating profile, spelling and grammar intact: "I never know what to say in these things. LOL. They say I have to rite something, so here goes. Im a fun loving guy who likes to cuttle and be cose to someone. I like motorcycles and playing video games. well I have nothing else to say but am being forced to fill out this box. LOL."
Here is the applicant equivalent: "Worked on a forest service engine.  Fought fire.  Training.  Worked on  projects."  These applicants usually neglect to provide references, and sometimes even the name of the Forest on which they worked.  Do they actually exist?

2.  Some of them think pretty highly of themselves.  One of these online daters might say:  "Quite honestly, I am a blast to be around.  I am an ALPHA. I am good looking, confident, and charismatic and have values and principals. You women say you want a nice guy, but you obviously don't so I had to expand my search area."
An applicant in this category says, "I know everything there is to know about running an engine.  I raised employee morale every day. I was the fittest person on my crew."

3.  Some of them have unrealistic expectations.  Fifty years old and looking for women 18-30? Um, ok.  A guy who was 46 explained to me that he was seeking younger women because "menopause makes women crazy."  Think you'll attract great dates by posting a diatribe about your ex on your profile, or by saying you wear "wranglers with a 32-inch waste"?  I'm guessing not.
Someone applying for a job who is afflicted with this malady will admit that they have never done this job before, but they are sure they can do it.  Saw a helicopter fly by on a fire? This often turns into, "Worked with helicopters frequently."  Applying for a helicopter job but stating in your resume that you don't want to work on a helicopter crew because you "don't want to sit around at a helibase"? Yes, he actually said that.

4.  It's a leap of faith.  Anyone can look good on paper, or on a computer screen.  Ten year old photos?  Mom wrote your profile?  Copy your friend's application?  Sooner or later you just have to pick one and see who shows up.

Don't get me wrong.  I wish you the best, even the bad spellers, the ones who talk about Play Station in their profiles, the applicants who ask, "where is this place again?" when you call them.  It's strange to go internet shopping for an employee, let alone a mate.  Good luck, everyone.

This is not me, but I know how she feels.

Friday, March 15, 2013

fire: a love story

When I first started fighting fire I was young, although I felt old, in the way only someone in their twenties can feel old.  This was an indulgence only twenty-year-olds have, and it doesn't really feel like that to be old, something I wouldn't learn until years later.

The old timers probably laughed at us, in our bright yellow shirts and cheap new boots; they knew half of us wouldn't last.  In fact, a couple wouldn't make it past their first fire, the heat, smoke or loneliness doing them in, sending them back to school, to be teachers, lawyers, accountants. 

It was the best job in the world, the old timers said.  And I believed.  The pulaski in my hand felt like a blessing.  It was a kind of deliverance.  With it, I wasn't the scared, skinny girl I had been for my whole life.  I was tough, my waist length hair in a braid, my stride long and sure.  I kept up. 

There were times I ran through a ring of fire, followed by the freight train sound of death stalking through the trees.  There were a few seconds in a helicopter, spiraling uncontrollably down into bright aspens on a sparkling autumn day.  There is cold and hunger and little sleep, aching knees and smoke-scarred lungs.  And, always, there is the weight of knowing the damages done living this gypsy life, the people and places left behind chasing fire.

And yet.  There have also been quiet sunrises on rappel helispots on August mornings and nights spent counting falling stars as the fire glowed like a thousand candles on the hillside.  There are chance meetings with old friends in a blackened forest.  And there's the story of a burning mountain and a man; love and fire wrapped up together, inseparable.

Those of us who are now the old timers sometimes complain about our jobs, like people sometimes complain about their husbands and wives, but in the end we chose it like they chose their mates; there was once a reason or a hundred reasons.  We love it and sometimes we hate it, but after all these years, it is ours, it has become a part of us.

This is the truth:  Sometimes I wish for rain. I want it to pour down like some sort of vengeance and erase the sight of yet more smoke rising tentatively out of a tangle of forest.  But at the same time I can't seem to forget how much I want to be out there, walking the line.  The time I have spent with fire is the longest relationship I have ever had with anything.  I don't know who I would have been without it.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

the mountains of winter

J. sends me the same email every March 1st.  This year it says, "Do you remember where you were 11 years ago?"

We were standing on top of this mountain:

Everyone needs something to look forward to.  For some of my employees, fresh off a six month break from work, it's another fire season.  They bounce in with the spring, alive with the possibilities.  After 25 summers of fire, and winters spent dealing with the paperwork side of it, their enthusiasm makes me somewhat tired.  About this time, I'm starting to plan my next mountain.

Cotopaxi,  Ecuador. I climbed this one in 2003.
I'm not a great climber, unlike some of my friends who are world-class mountaineers.  I'll never climb Mt. Everest (too expensive) or Denali (too cold).  I can't ever remember how to set up a Z pulley system, and I'm okay with hiring a guide.  These are the parts I like:  crossing a glacier at dawn, seeing a line of other headlamps lighting the way.  Prayer flags on the summit of a Himalayan peak.  The sun lighting up a sea of other mountains as you descend, the rope connecting you and your teammates, the bite of your crampons in the snow.

Mera Peak, Nepal, 2007
 Fire season will be what it is.  There have been some fires in the west already; then again, it could rain all summer.  We will be busy, or not.  In October the crew will forget how much they wanted to come back to work and will be counting the days until they are done.  But for me the mountains of winter will be out there, just waiting.

Aconcagua, my next project.

Monday, March 4, 2013

What's in YOUR fire pack?

"The longer I do this job, the less I carry," George declared.  He was nearly 60 at the time, and had been fighting fire since the 1970s, so he probably knew what he was talking about.  I sensed a kindred spirit immediately, since I'm a downsizer from way back.

Most crews have lists of what rookies should put in their packs.  This is a good thing, or you might find people out there with electric razors and iPads instead of food.  I don't remember the first list I tried to abide by.  It was probably written on a typewriter, since fire crews didn't have computers then.  It probably had items like cotton bandana (2) and, euphemistically, feminine hygiene products. And, it probably had way too much stuff.  Admittedly, it's a fine line.  The helicopter won't bring you extra socks after it drops you off, but unless you're lucky, it won't carry them out for you either.

I've seen all kinds of things in people's packs on the fireline.  Hardcover books.  GameBoys.  Speakers for iPods.  Stuffed animals.   Pieces of their regular lives, along for the ride.  My pack will never win a prize for most interesting content, unless you find tuna, a space blanket, a fleece jacket, a weather kit and a few other boring things fascinating.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not a minimalist because I don't want to be comfortable.  On a rappel fire when I saw T. cleaning the ash off his face with baby wipes, I briefly wished for some.  When C. pulled a kindle out of her pack while we waited for our ride from the trailhead, I felt envy.  But, well, not enough to carry it all, maybe 20 miles.  If you've ever had to pack a few empty water blivets, swivels, and bladder bags out of a fire in addition to your stuff, you know what I mean.

Sometimes you might get bored.  You might get a little cold.  But you can look at the fire if you don't have a book at night, or volunteer to hike down the hill to get water.  After all, as George liked to say, "you're not really a helitack firefighter unless you've spent a night out on a fire with your helmet bag on your head and socks on your hands to keep warm."

Still, if rookies ask what to take, I produce a list, composed neatly on a computer in Word 2010 (no, this is the government, we won't have 2013 until probably 2016).  They peruse it anxiously and go out to buy bandanas.  I don't say anything.  They'll learn.

Crew building fireline in 1934.  US Forest Service Photo by KD Swan.