It would have been easier to quit, some days; to stop waking up before dawn in a cold fire camp, then later burning from the sun on a high mountain ridge. I had so many opportunities to take another way, to move into a higher level job, or to change careers entirely. I could have done it, but something held me back.
"I should never have gotten out of the left front seat," B. said, referring to the job he had on the helicopter, the one I still have. Going into a management position, he fought against the bureaucracy and his own demons. He was found in a hotel room far from home dead by his own hand; I can only imagine the dark cloud that he lived inside during his final days. Maybe staying out on the fireline would have saved him; nobody will ever know.
A lot of my fire brothers are still out here. We run across each other on fires all over the west, or I'll get a call from one of them out of the blue. Most of them still love it; some are just putting their time in until they can retire. But most of my sisters are gone, the ones who started when I did, back in 1988 when Yellowstone, and everywhere else it seemed, was on fire.
Many of them quit to have families, or to do something else. Firefighting was just a sideline for them, a stepping stone until their real lives started. Some stayed close to it, but they moved into administrative positions, to dispatch, or went out on assignments a couple times a year on a break from their regular jobs. Very few of them are still out there on the fireline with me.
I'm still out here. I walk the line with people young enough to be the children I never had. Some of my best and my worst moments have been out here. A helicopter crash on a bright autumn day, and the exhilaration of survival. Running through flames to escape the freight train sound of death coming over the ridge. A man who smiled at me as we stepped off a mountain to let the fire go by. All the faces of the people who didn't make it through the fire or the accidents or the black thoughts they held inside. Houses I helped save and ones I couldn't and watched burn into ashes in the dark night. Fiery sunsets from a wilderness camp and big starry skies.
Sometimes it's lonely out here. I love my fire brothers but they don't get it, what it's like to be a woman still doing this after 29 years. Their wives and their girlfriends are very different from me; they are who I might have been if I hadn't chosen this path.
Still. Every summer I pick up a pulaski and I walk the fireline. I lean out of helicopters spreading fire from the sky and searching for hidden smoke. I still do it. I'm still here.
|Baker River Hotshots, 1992|