Friday, January 30, 2015

Secret Squirrel

I've been absent from Bloglandia for awhile due to some covert operations.  I've been in [insert name of large southwestern city] helping with a mass hiring event.

I'm sure there are nice parts of [censored city] but this is not it.  Every day we shuffle into a large, soulless building and show our IDs to a security guard.  Supposedly this building contains human resource people who have the answers to many of the personnel questions we have, but we aren't allowed to go upstairs to see them.  We are confined to a few rooms on the first floor. We can't use their office supplies. Only a few people among us are allowed to use the printer.  They chase us out of the covered parking.  They will be glad to see us go.

We aren't allowed to talk about the process to people who aren't involved.  As firefighters are terrible gossips, this proves difficult, and we wonder who among the 100 or so here will crumble under the pressure and start talking.  Applicants call us and ask plaintively about their status.  We feel mean, but can't say.

Inside our meeting rooms, we try to lighten the mood.  We giggle at unintentionally funny reference letters.  One guy attaches a mini speaker to his ipod.  He plays Def Leppard and Men Without Hats as we flip through pages and pages of applications, people's hopes and dreams about to be realized or dashed.  We are exhausted by the end of the day.

D. asks the hotel staff about running routes.  They say doubtfully that there is a trail but it is full of homeless people.  I retreat to the old treadmill and rickety stairstepper in the fitness room.  One night I go to a gym.

On the last day it snows.  It makes the city look better, even though it's too warm to last.  We have done our part here.  It's time to go home.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

If I had run

On Sunday, I woke up thinking that I should go for a run.  But I looked outside and saw that once again it had snowed overnight.  Some years we don't get much snow in the valley; you can run on the trails all year round.  This is not one of those years.  So even though I hadn't run in awhile, I couldn't resist.  I pulled out my snowshoes and headed for the woods.

Running is great.  I've been doing it for decades.  But it was the right decision, because if I had run:

I wouldn't have seen the sun through the trees in a quiet forest.

I wouldn't have been the only person out there on such a beautiful day.

I wouldn't have been outside for over two hours (I don't run for that long anymore!)

I wouldn't have seen the gate to nowhere...

This snow angel wouldn't have happened!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

If the fire doesn't get you, this stuff will

Sometimes rookies think all they have to worry about is the fire itself.  But there are other things lurking, things we don't teach them about in fire school.  It's good that we don't, because they might run away!  Here's just a few:

Unfriendly plants.  Trips to northern California are widely dreaded because of the widespread poison oak.  When it burns it even gets in your lungs.  The people who seem to be immune (often Native Americans) are looked on with envy, and often sent in to clear the vines.  A fall can be a disaster in a desert fire, if ill-timed and in the vicinity of cactus or yucca.

Wildlife.  Danimal had a sinking feeling as he looked out of the helicopter at the rappel spot and saw three bears frolicking in it.  Sure enough, they returned later on to slap at Brandon's pack, which he had carelessly left at the top of the fire.  B., sleeping peacefully in a hay field, awoke to wolf teeth close to his nose.  Thinking quickly, he punched the wolf in the face, earning legendary Chuck Norris-like status among his fellow firefighters (and an interesting write-up on the subsequent medical paperwork).

Sickness.  The "camp crud" spreads through fire camps faster than the fire does through the forest.  The medical tent becomes the hot place to be.  People who famously declare that they won't get sick because they "have a great immune system" usually get it the worst.  J. got Legionnaire's disease from a suspect hotel on his way back from a helicopter assignment and had to quarantine himself.  Tummy troubles run rampant, exacerbated by poor porta potty hygiene and questionable food.

Icky bugs.  We eyed K., one of our fill-ins and a known carrier monkey, when we learned that someone on his regular crew had picked up scabies somewhere and the crew was fumigating their vehicles.  Luckily he seemed to be uninfested and was allowed to stay.  Scabies have also infected whole camps when Supply personnel neglect to wash sleeping bags and then  hand them out to unsuspecting people.  It's enough to make anyone feel itchy.

Strange people.  Homeless camps in the woods, residents brandishing shotguns, drunks wanting a helicopter ride,  growers protecting their marijuana crops; we see it all.  Fire seems to bring out the weirdos.  (It should also be noted that if firefighters tend toward oddness, the job makes it worse).

If that's not enough, there's also ghost sightings, risky drivers (one earned the name "Oil Pan Angie" for good reason), and creepy motels where the same key opens every room.  But I'll save that for later.  We do want some applicants for our seasonal jobs.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

the winds of change

Jim and I lounged around at Spotted Bear waiting for the helicopter to return.  Lacking cell service, the other crewmembers resorted to reading books.  Jim, a mild mannered hippie type who had been fighting fire for about 30 years, observed this activity and uttered the fateful words "you know, when I first started fighting fire, we didn't have..."

Being a longtime firefighter myself, I perked up at this.  "Let's make a list!" I suggested, and pulled out a notepad. Even the younger firefighters got into it, proving that a lot has changed even in the last five years or so.  We soon had a massive list.  Here are a few items from it, along with my judgment on whether the change is good or bad, because of course, it's all about me.

Cell phones:  Back in the day, if you were lucky, fire camp would have a few landline phones sitting on tables.  Being that there were sometimes a few thousand people in fire camp, you had to limit your phone calls to five minutes or risk grumbling and dirty looks.  I generally avoided the phones.  Most anything could wait three weeks till I got home.  Now everyone has a cell phone; in places with limited service people can be seen wandering the fields, peering perplexedly at their phones and lamenting the lack of connection.
Verdict:  Bad.  It's good to be disconnected sometimes.  Plus, you can't hide anymore when you're toting a phone everywhere.  Even in the porta potty.

Social media:  When I started fighting fire, the only "social media" was the aviation grapevine.  For the latest rumors, all you had to do was find a pilot or mechanic.  In fact, we had a saying about one particularly talkative pilot: "Telephone, telegraph, Tell-A-Scott." Was their information correct? Who knows, but it provided us with hours of entertainment.  Now as soon as something happens, it's on Facebook.  When Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up on one of my fires, the information officers issued a stern statement about not posting photos.  However, everyone did.  Immediately.
Verdict: Good and bad.  There are sites now where local residents can find out up to the minute status of fires that might affect their property.  Bad because it makes the rumor mill even worse at times.  Also bad for potential job applicants who didn't make their profiles private.

Good maps:  If you were a peon crewmember, you never saw the map.  Your crewboss would get a black and white Xeroxed copy of a map, often drawn by hand, with an overlaying grid.  You figured out where you were supposed to go by where gridlines intersected.  Now we have GIS specialists on fires, producing beautiful full color maps of anything you could possibly want.
Verdict:  Good, especially for pilots. And old ones make great wrapping paper.

Paperwork:  Computers were supposed to make us a paperless society.  Ha, ha.  There's more paper than ever!  Now you need documentation for everything, even on fires.  Leaving the fire?  You need a demob sheet, evaluation form, vehicle inspection sheet, helicopter flight strip, a form from the training specialist, supply checkout form, and probably other paperwork I've blocked out.
Verdict:  You have to ask?

Veggie Lunches:  When I started fighting fire, I mostly subsisted on chips and Snickers bars.  I know, a Paleo's nightmare.  But it was that or pork and beef, which I didn't eat.  You couldn't be picky and fight fire.  Vegetarians got pretty skinny.  Now there are veggie lunches on most fires.  You often have to fight the carnivores for them.
Verdict: Good.  It's not the Hunger Games anymore and you don't have to forage for wild berries.  But it can also be bad, when entitled people demand gluten free Meals Ready to Eat to be paid for out of your limited supply budget. (The real gluten free people I know don't complain and either bring their own food or get creative with the lunches).

GPS.  You used to either have to use a map and compass or get lost.  Now I run into people in management positions on fire who don't know how to use a compass at all! Appalling.  On the other hand, you can create tracks that can then be downloaded to the afore-mentioned beautiful maps.
Verdict: Mostly good.  As a field observer, I hike all over the fire, and it's easy to get lost temporarily misplaced sometimes.  Now I always keep a backtrack going so I can find my way out.  However, this is also creating a group of people who don't know how to read maps.

Jim and I grumbled over our list.  Bottled water! More helicopter rides, less hiking! Weed washing stations! But we had to admit that some changes were for the better (more acceptance for women in fire, no more paper sleeping bags, MRES with heaters).  Mostly we were just glad we got to experience firefighting when people were expected to be tougher.  Not that we're old or anything.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Inside the snow globe

I'm living in a snow globe.  The snow just keeps falling; a foot more is expected tonight.  I put on my Antarctica parka and go shovel.  Half an hour later another inch of white covers the steps.

Winter isn't easy here in the mountains.  It starts early and lingers late.  The valley is often blanketed with inversions and freezing fog.  Temperatures drop below zero.  When it isn't snowy it's icy.  Two weeks ago a young woman died about a mile from my house, on the road I have to take to go anywhere, a road I run on.  Her car sliding off the road, she was ejected into the night, leaving her two small children alone in their car seats.

I've lived many places, some colder and some warmer than this.  I spent more than half a year in Hawaii, and camped from February to April in southern Arizona one year.  But somehow I keep coming back to winter.  Sometimes I wonder why.  I like snowshoeing and snowboarding and even winter running, but I don't like shoveling. I'm always cold.  I want sunshine and hiking trails.

"Why do we live here?" I grumble at friends on a particularly cold day combined with arctic wind blasts.  It would be so much easier somewhere else.  But really I know why.  It's because of this:

So there's the paradox.  You can't have these mountains and these lakes without the winter that helps shape them.  As it is, the glaciers in the park down the road are melting due to climate change; one scientist says they will be gone in five years.  This to me is incredibly sad.  Because I want the summer and the glaciers, I live with the winter.  My snowshoes are by the door waiting for tomorrow morning, ready to head out into the snow globe..