Saturday, November 30, 2013

things people say to me about my job

1. "That must be exciting!"  Well...yes, sometimes.  I've been a firefighter for over half my life now so sometimes I lose my frame of reference.  What might be exciting to someone who works in a cube farm is just another day to me.  (Also, if I got to go to a cube farm, I'd probably be unreasonably excited by computers that actually work, and printers that don't take two hours to print a 100 page PDF document).  Yes, there are exciting moments: chasing fire, saving houses...but also long stretches of boredom and monotony, doing project work and waiting for fires to actually happen.

2.  "Do you jump out of planes?"  No, those are my buddies the smokejumpers.  They are great, but I've known too many broken ones to have considered that job for myself.  We take different methods to get to a fire, but once we are there, our job is the same.

3.  "You're so brave!" do you answer this?  "Yes, why yes I am!"?  The truth is, a lot of stuff scares me, but we learn to assess and manage risk.  I've done some pretty brave things on the fireline, but I've also known when to back off and let nature take its course.

4.  "That's a hard job."  Yes, it can be.  Hard on your body, hard on relationships, mentally hard sometimes.  Other times, when it's just you and one other person perched on a peak in the middle of nowhere watching a fire, it's the best job ever.

5.  "How did you get started doing that?"  Honestly, it was really an accident.  I never meant to make this a career.

6.  "Do you fly the helicopter?"  No, we have a pilot for that.  Thank goodness, because I'm really bad at it.

7.  "Do you fight fires all over the country?"  Yes, we go all over the place, and some lucky people get to go places like Australia and Russia.

8.  "You're lucky, you get paid to exercise."  Yes, in theory we get "PT time" every day.  Often it doesn't happen because of a fire or a project.  It's great, but we don't have the budget for workout equipment so we can sometimes be found lifting logs and rocks (it works, though).  Also, it's necessary:  we are often required to hike long distances out of fires; 20 miles is common.  Where I work people sometimes hike 50 miles to get back to civilization.  You have to be fit to be able to do that. Whether you're 19 years old or 55, nobody cares: you have to keep up, and carry all your stuff.

9.  "Why don't you cut more trees down so people's houses don't burn?"  Sorry, there's just not enough money or personnel to do this everywhere.  If people who live in the forest would clear out around their houses, it would reduce their risk greatly.  I've watched houses burn and it's heartbreaking to know that a little brushing and cutting by the landowner would have saved them.

10.  And my favorite:  "You women don't really fight fires, do you? You just go along and cook for the men."  In this guy's defense, this was said about 20 years ago and he didn't know any better.  Men who camp out on the fireline are usually pretty good cooks if we get fresh food (or know how to doctor up MREs).  And if you need anything sewn, see a smokejumper.  Most of them know their way around a sewing machine like no other.

What do people say about YOUR job?

Monday, November 25, 2013

I'm a bad weather friend

We sit eating turkey burgers, an early "Friendsgiving," commenting on the American Music Awards.  "Look at Miley," we say.  "What is she wearing?" Earlier, we snowshoed up the ski hill, and then went to see the second Hunger Games movie.  The day before we hiked to a frozen lake.  My friends laugh and pass around salad and wine.  I probably don't deserve them, the way I float in and out of their lives, but I'm here nevertheless.

Here's how you know who your real friends are.  Bail on everything for six months a year.  Weddings, birthdays, holiday barbecues.  Make plans because you think you have a day off, and then cancel at the last minute because you're on your way to Alaska.  Tell them you'll be back in three weeks.  If you do have a few hours, meet them at the Nite Owl or the Dam Town.  Show up in smoky nomex and fire boots, and leave early, because you have to be at work by six the next morning.  Don't answer emails or texts for a long time because you don't have cell service on your fire in Wyoming.  At the end of fire season, come back.  Start contacting people: you're available now! What are they doing?  If they welcome you back, and are happy to see you, and it's like no time at all has gone by, do what you can to keep them.

Friends on the trail

We stopped to look at this icy stream

Almost frozen lake at about 15 F

Top of the ski area

Thursday, November 21, 2013

running stream of consciousness

Well ok.  My work computer is independently deciding to run a check disk and get rid of bad files.  Um, thanks? Maybe I should run.  Ok, I will.  Probably kind of cold out there.  7:30 and it's starting to get light out.  Shirt with sleeves that fold into mittens, check.  Light jacket.  Hat. Running tights.  I remember when I had the first pair of running tights in town.  I had to get them specially made by a seamstress.  At races, people said, "Your legs are blue!" OK, focus. Spikes? No, it's probably not that slippery.  Where's my watch?  Oh, here it is.  Here we go.  Oh, I looked at the thermometer.  It's 5 F.  Brrr. Well, too late now.  Running toward the trail. I feel fortunate to live so close to a trail system.  Actually it's one of the reasons I bought this house.  Good, there's nobody parked here.  The trail is frosty but there's no snow here anymore.  Oops, I forgot to wear orange.  I'll run on the east side trail that goes up by some houses, there won't be any hunters there.  Turn left now. It's kind of cold out.  Here comes the hill.  The sun's not up yet.  Is that black thing a bear? No, it's a stump.  Probably should have worn my contacts.  Top of the hill!  There's the castle house.  I never see anybody there.  I wonder if they just have a caretaker and never come here.  Could have used another layer.  There's the house with the little barky dogs.  They're not out.  Yay, downhill!  Climb over the mountain bike jumps now.  I wonder who built these?  My feet are cold.  Stop it, you're lucky to be able to run.  I really can't run on the treadmill, ugh.  Trail junction, go left.  Slight downhill here.  I read yesterday that most humans have 2.5% Neanderthal DNA, that's so interesting.  Why did I think of that?  This is why I've failed at meditating.  Coming up to the turnaround point.  Not running too fast today.  Main trail, turn around.  I've warmed up a little.  I wonder what I should eat for breakfast.  Oh, there's yogurt that's expired.  I'm sure it's still good.  Trail junction, turn right.  Back over the mountain bike jumps.  I've only seen a few bikers in here.  This hill seems longer than usual.  I'm cold again, what's up with that? Hi, castle house.  Downhill again!  There's that connector trail.  Can't believe I've been running in here for so long and just found another trail the other day.  At least I don't get lost in here anymore.  Turn right now.  Sun's still not up.  Should have worn warmer tights.  It's good to get exercise out of the way first thing.  Here's the gate.  Less than 1/4 mile left.  My neighbor has already gone to work.  Look at my cute house, I love it.  OK, I'm done!  Running in the morning is the best!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

the simple life

I was a seasonal employee for many years.  Unlike now, it was almost impossible to get the coveted permanent appointment with benefits and guaranteed work.  You either waited it out, quit and went back to school, or applied to another government agency.  My friend D. did this, fleeing to the IRS in the early '90s to obtain the needed status to be able to apply back to our agency for the jobs he really wanted.  "I found out that there's a certain amount of money you can owe and it's not worth it for the IRS to come after you," he reported back, adding helpfully, "but I can't tell you what it is."

These days my employees have more toys than I do, but in my seasonal days, we thought that kind of life was well beyond us.  Not knowing when, if ever, we would even be able to apply for permanent jobs (most of these openings only allowed people who were already in the system to compete), our needs were minimal. 

I hiked in jeans or old goretex running pants.  I fit everything I owned in a small hatchback car.  I didn't have a TV or a phone.  For fun, I did things like lug a bottle of sherry up a mountain to an old lookout site to watch a meteor shower with friends (why sherry? I have no idea. It tasted awful).  I bought my own crash and burn health insurance and it would never have occurred to me to complain about it.  I  had everything I needed, including an overseas trip now and then.  I had few ties.  I felt free.

One winter, I kept the heat at 55 degrees in a small apartment I rented.  "It's cold in here!" visitors would say.  "Here's a blanket," I replied.  "OK," they answered, seasonals themselves.  They got it.

Once I showed up for a mountaineering class obliviously toting my trusty orange pup tent of 1970s vintage, handed down to me from my parents.  The instructor eyed it warily.  "We'll just leave this one at base camp as an extra gear tent," he suggested kindly.  I moved into a pricey dome tent with a Scottish guy named Andrew for the rest of the class (sorry, Andrew, wherever you might be).

This is not me, but this is the same tent.  Unfortunately I found this picture on a backpackers forum and they did not credit the photographer either.
I've had a permanent job for many years now.  I have a house and a hot tub, a kayak and a bike.  If I see some camping gear I want, I usually buy it.  I travel to amazing places.  Still, I drive a 14 year old truck; it is only the third vehicle I have ever owned.  I would rather eat bread and cheese at the top of a peak than go to a restaurant any day.  People still tell me it's cold in my house.  I think my long ago seasonal self would be proud.  "You don't need all that stuff.  Take the money and go to Antarctica," I think she would say.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

dude looks like a lady

(Remember that song? Is it stuck in your head now? You're welcome).

Awhile back, I wrote this post about what I've learned from working with mostly men for decades in a job that is primarily manual labor.  Sometimes I wonder if it's changed me from the person I would have been if I had chosen a more traditionally female role.  If I had chosen to be a nurse or a teacher, would I still dislike asking for help, considering it a sign of weakness? Would I still rather go away than talk it out? Would I actually enjoy talking about my feelings? 

I ran this theory by a male friend.  "Sometimes I feel like I AM a man," I said.

"Dude, you ARE," he replied.  Sigh.

Don't misunderstand.  I like to wear dresses, I get my hair highlighted, and I have a weakness for cute boots.  I will never refuse chocolate because "I have a chew in."  I have three cats.  I wouldn't want to go to Jared, worry about getting in a fight, or pretend football is interesting.  So, I'm not REALLY a guy.  But I do understand them.  I don't, like some women, think they are a different species, are from Mars, or that there is a certain set of "Rules" that need to be followed to get them interested.

I can't say whether I would have turned out differently if I hadn't spent almost my entire adult life working around men.  I'm not sorry, though.  I appreciate my "masculine side."  Don't expect me to ask for directions.  I might be driving around in circles, but I'll be wearing some really cute boots doing it.

Kind of a dude...

...but not really.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013


While other people were celebrating July 4 with barbecues and fireworks, I was in Boise waiting for a helicopter to arrive so I could travel with it to fight fires.  Since it was delayed, I wandered over to the Wildland Firefighters Memorial.  This is a quiet place with stones to remember firefighters lost over the years.

I walked around the loop, recognizing names.  People had left trinkets or flowers at some of the stones.  It was nearly 100 degrees, but I found a shaded bench and worked on my laptop, until I heard voices.

An older couple was walking around the memorial with a guide.  The woman bent to place red roses at one of the stones.  She was crying.

They came up to me. "These are X's parents," the person with them said.  I recognized the name, but couldn't remember the details.  It didn't matter; he was still one of my fire brothers, gone in a way all firefighters think about sometimes when they can't sleep.  I later read that he had died alone, overcome by flames on a fire in Utah several years ago.

I hugged them. "I'm sorry," I said. The words felt inadequate. "Thank you for all you do," the man said.  At first, this felt wrong.  I just do my job.  Often, this involves long stretches of boredom, waiting for something to happen, or endless red tape.  Sometimes it seems senseless to try and hold back this force of nature that was meant to happen.

Still.  There are those days when it all makes sense.  The time the pilot and I loaded up two people stranded at a cabin in Alaska with an 80,000 acre fire bearing down on them, and took them out of harm's way.  The days where we dropped in like angels to rescue loggers and firefighters, surrounded by fire.  The houses I helped save with little more than my hands.  The people we found on searches, some alive and some lost to the hills but at least brought home one last time.

I can't imagine the pain X's parents feel, and I don't think his death, or those of the Yarnell 19, or any of them, is worth it.  Not to save a house or a forest.  But I do accept their words of thanks, because of those brief, shining moments, the ones we might only get a few times in a lifetime, where we really do make a difference.