Tuesday, February 25, 2014

scenes from a fire

It's a slow day in my blogosphere.  I don't have much to say, except that I added a "follow by email" button.  So try it...let me know if it works!

Since I haven't been doing a lot lately that's blog-worthy, I thought I'd share some job photos.

Here's a glimpse into my world, through some images from a fire in Wyoming  a year and a half ago.

Cows in the road

We saved this house

This is the fire that came toward the above house.  Some of the newer crewmembers were scared.

Crew boss making a plan.  What would you do?

 At 4:30 am, the crew sets a line of fire to stop the main fire from crossing the road.  They woke us up in fire camp to go do this.

The crew clearing around a ranch outbuilding

Fire coming over the hill

I called these the "love trees"

I saved this cabin

Have a good day, blog friends!

Thursday, February 20, 2014


A few years ago, I went to Nepal.  I met a group of British people and trekked with them through a remote valley to climb a 21,000' peak.

We walked for days, up and down hills and over 15,000' passes.  We hiked 6-10 hours a day, and there was an attractive simplicity to it.  All we had to do was walk.  We ate whatever the Sherpas cooked for us.  We drank water constantly, because hydration helps you acclimatize to high elevations.  I ate whatever I wanted and still lost weight; everyone did.  As I walked I realized that this is what our bodies want:  long walks, simple food, and lots of water.

Sometimes I need a reset.  Especially in winter, the routine of gym/running/exercise bike/elliptical gets boring and I dread it. When this happens, I go for a walk in the woods instead.

I'm fortunate to live close to a system of trails that is only open to non-motorized activity.  As light snow fell, I walked through the gate into the forest.

There is a network of trails through here. I usually run on them.

Nobody had been on this one since it snowed.

There are a lot of intersections, lots of choices on where to go.

The clouds were low over the mountains across the farmers' fields.

Tomorrow I'll get back to more strenuous exercise.  But today, an hour and a half in the snowy woods was perfect.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

How NOT to get a seasonal firefighting job

Yes, it's seasonal hiring season once again.  At least it gives me something to write about.  Here are a few examples (all of which I have encountered more than once while reviewing applications) of what not to do if you want a job.  Enjoy.

Picture from here
1.  Call up and immediately start interviewing your potential supervisor, demanding to know his or her fire qualifications.  Especially do this if you have minimal experience and the person hiring you has been fighting fire longer than you've been alive.  Make sure to mention that you really want to be a smokejumper and are only using this job as a stepping stone.

2.  Write down your dad as your only reference.  Indicate that this is a professional reference.

3.  Ignore spell check because you know better.  Spell "personnel" as "personnelle."  Misspell the name of the last place you worked.  Don't capitalize anything, even the names of your references.  Misuse words, such as stating that you are a "pleasurable" individual rather than "pleasant."  Include the name of the four year university you graduated from, so they can be proud of your writing skills.

4.  Include the information in your application that you don't want to work on a helitack crew because you "get bored hanging around a helibase".  Forget that this is in your application and apply to a helitack crew.

5.  Get a copy of the position description and cut and paste the duties in it into your work history, because paraphrasing is really too much work.

6.  Say that it isn't OK to contact your previous employers.  Because that's not a red flag at all.

7.  Discover the fine line between keeping in contact with potential employers and pestering them.  Cross it.  Multiple times.

8.  Badmouth previous supervisors.  Say that you want a job on a different crew just because you want to get off your old one.  Say that you want a job on the helicopter, but you get motion sickness, so can you just drive the truck all summer?

9.  Apply places without doing any research.  When called, act bewildered, like you've never heard of the place (because you probably haven't).

10. Include on your application that you are writing a book about your firefighting experiences and that you expect to get some good material from this season.  Expect that your potential boss will be overjoyed to be included in your literary efforts.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

the trail less traveled

It was a cold day in the national park.  My water bottle froze.  The road to the trailhead was closed by snow.  There were no cars in the parking lot.  I slogged along on snowshoes through the quiet forest.

When I reached a junction in the closed road, I hesitated.  I had seen people hiking on the left fork before, but I had always turned to the right, to take the trail up to the fire lookout.  That way was familiar; the views were beautiful.  I vaguely knew that the other route followed a decommissioned road.  It looked flat and boring, just a path through the woods.

A confession:  I'm sort of a hiking snob.  I'm so busy with work in the summer that when I do have time to hike,  I choose the mountain peaks and the picturesque lakes.  I want the big views, not acres of trees.  But today, I made a split second decision.  I turned to the left.

Immediately all the other prints vanished, except for a single set of ski tracks.  The snow was deep and soft.  I saw nobody.

The ski tracks stopped at the top of a hill.

I continued on and came to this cute bridge:

The trees creaked and groaned in the wind.  There were glimpses of mountains though the forest.

The trail was longer than I thought, and I had started late.  I reluctantly turned around, covering about 7 miles.  I realized I had been missing out.  The forest was so peaceful, and I didn't have to follow anyone else's tracks.  I don't need mountain peaks every time.  Sometimes a quiet forest is the perfect choice.

I'll be back to hike the entire trail sometime soon.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

what I wear to work

I see some of you, headed to work in the summer in cute dresses, skirts, and sandals.  A lot of you wear makeup and nail polish and your hair is perfectly blown out.

That is not me.

Those summer clothes hang in my closet for the rare weekend I'm actually home and not working.  If I wear cute clothes to work, it has to be in the winter, which means it often doesn't happen, since cute clothes and shoveling paths and steps don't really mix.

In the summer, we have to be ready to jump on the helicopter at a moment's notice and go fight fire.  Here is what we wear to work every day:

Nomex fire-resistant pants.  These come in many styles, all designed to flatter nobody.  They usually have a plethora of pockets, in which we stuff things like phones, handheld radios, notebooks, and snacks, giving us strange bulges on our legs.

See? So not cute.
 Big boots.  I can always tell where my employees are by following the clomping sounds.  These boots must be leather, at least 8" tall, and have vibram soles.  All of them are destined to become uncomfortable at some point.

Clomp clomp, I can hear you.

T-shirt.  Most firefighters accumulate many throughout the years.  Enterprising vendors set up shop outside fire camps to sell shirts emblazoned with the fire name and usually a helicopter, raging flames, and an elk or two.  Established crews have their own crew t-shirt which most people out of inertia just wear every day.  It is considered bad form to wear the shirt from a crew you have not been on, no matter how you acquired it.

The minions complained that our crew shirt was black and therefore too hot, although some appreciated black's slimming properties.
Ponytail or braid.  Forget about having nice hair during fire season.  You can go two weeks without a shower in some places and you're wearing a hard hat all the time.

The Fire Braid, at fire camps near you

If you are sitting in the helicopter, you are also wearing:

Flight helmet.  This is to protect your head and also so you can hear what's going on through the intercom and on the radio.  I kind of cringe when I watch shows like the Bachelor (and not just because it's the Bachelor), when I see them only wearing headsets on helicopters.  Sure, their hair looks great, but what if there's a crash? Their heads! I guess I think about weird things.

My minions all want my helmet because it's a military conversion and not the standard white government issue. I'll never give it up, minions. Never!
Flight gloves.  You can't text with them on.  But you shouldn't be texting anyway.  Your job is to look for aerial hazards and help the pilot with the mission.
It gets pretty warm wearing these when it's 90 degrees out.
Nomex fire shirt.  The same premise as the pants.  The same unattractiveness.  These come in other colors, but yellow is the most common, so we can see each other in the woods.

Anyone want to take my picture for a Glamour Do? Anyone?

What do you wear to work? Can you choose, or are you anti-fashionistas like us? If you work from home, do you dress up?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Porta-potties, a field guide

It's time to write about something important.  I'm talking porta-potties, people.

Many of you may rarely encounter such an item, or only do so for special events such as running races or concerts.  However, wildland firefighters are all too familiar with the porta-potty, also known as the blue room, porta-pooper, and many other delightful names.  They pop up at helibases, fire camps, and drop off points and are usually one of the first support items ordered (after lunches, that is).  Because of my years of experience with these portable restrooms, I thought a few tips were in order.  You're welcome.

1.  Not all porta-potties are created equal.  Some have hand sanitizer dispensers (look for these) and some even have mirrors, though why this is eludes me.  People who use these things usually work outside.  We wear hardhats and our faces are dirty. There's no water inside a porta-potty.  Why the mirror? Ugh!

2.  Don't designate a women's potty.  I tried this at one helibase, but then found that all the guys started using it under the assumption that it would be cleaner.  It soon wasn't.  Thanks guys.

3.  Don't use your cell phone in the porta-potty!  A lot of people do this for some reason. If you do, and drop your phone in, don't blame me.  It is fun, however, to call your buddy's phone when he goes in there and see if he answers.  If he does, say it's his parole officer on the landline.  Yes, we are all 12 years old.

4.  Don't place a porta-potty near the landing area of a Skycrane or other large helicopter (this also goes for anything that causes a large wind event, such as tornadoes).  Disaster!

5.  Don't linger downwind.  This seems obvious, but I have observed many a poor porta-potty placement where prevailing winds were not considered.  Also, it's common to rejoice when the porta-potty pumper guy shows up.  I hear you, but clear the area.  The noxious fumes emanating from that soon to be clean restroom are not soon forgotten.

6.  Don't date a porta-potty pumper guy.  Or wait, do, because they make a lot of money, I've heard.  Well, they should.  If you do decide to date one, don't observe him on the job.  A lot of them wear tank tops and shorts as they boldly go where most of us would never dare to tread.  Some don't even wear gloves.  Ewwww.

7.  Don't tape a porta-potty door shut when someone is in there.  This is called hazing.  It is not allowed.  Although, I have known people who had this happen to them, with mixed results.  One had her book, and she sat and peacefully read until the would-be pranksters, crestfallen at her lack of response, let her out.  Another guy had his knife, like all good firefighters should, and was able to slash his way out and take revenge.

8.  Ever wonder how events or businesses know how many to order?  There are formulas for that! You enter your data, such as number of attendees, duration of event, ratio of women to men (!), and if alcohol is to be served or not.  Who knew?  If there aren't enough, someone wasn't following the formula!

9.  Inspect your potty before using.  One on the end?  Probably used the most. Avoid!  Broken door latch?  Um, no.  Located near a large group of pilots? Maybe not the best choice (they like to eat).

10. Don't hate the porta-potty.  There might be someday when you might really need one.  There will be no woods available, no oblivious fast food restaurant staff who don't care if you just come in to use the restroom.  Then there it will be, looming in the distance like a beautiful blue mirage, to save the day, once again.

Image from here