Thursday, December 28, 2017

Please don't: Ski Hill Edition

When I first started going to the local ski area, I didn't know the etiquette. After all, I was (sort of) teaching myself how to snowboard as an adult.  I had never ridden a chairlift.  I didn't know that there was a separate "single" line on busy days for people by themselves.  And why were those ski instructors yelling "Pizza!" at the little kids they had in tow?

But I studied other people and read signs, and soon figured it out.  And now that I can shred the gnar make it down the hill most of the time without falling, I see that many people still don't know the rules of the hill.  So here's some gentle reminders.  Please don't:

Stop in the lift line to put on your snowboard or skis/wait for your friends/ask the lifty random questions.  Look, I'm not really in a hurry, but those Super Seniors behind me need to get their vertical, darn it! And if it's below zero, everyone behind you is freezing.

Stop right below the off ramp and have a conversation.  Some of us, ahem, aren't as good at turning immediately after getting off the lift and need a little more room.  Move to the side and chatter away.

Yell instructions from the lift.  You may think you are being really helpful to beginners by screaming, "Bend your knees!" However, because of neck warmers, scarves, and distance, it's hard to tell whether you are saying "bend your knees" or "I'm your niece." Also, sudden yells from the lift are distracting and might cause said beginner to lose their concentration and fall.

Ask if the stranger behind you in line will take your overflow kid with them on the lift.  Bonus points if you say the kid knows how to get off the lift when in fact, he does not, and sits there like a rock instead of standing up, causing you to lunge for him and pick him up, sending him safely down the ramp while you fall, looking like a fool in front of the lift attendant.

Stop in the middle of a run.  Snowboarders do this more than skiers, but some skiers are guilty too.  Make everybody, including lessons, swerve around you.  Subtract a point if you stopped because you fell/lost a ski/lost your phone.  Everybody understands.

Make fun of or get impatient with people.  It's really brave to try and learn something new.  You should admire those 70 year olds in ski lessons. And those adaptive skiers who slowed down the lift line the other day?  I saw them going over the jumps in the terrain park.  They're way better than you.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

I'm a certified personal trainer!

When I loaded up the Ford Escape to go on a fire assignment last July, I added in something extra along with my fire boots and yellow shirt: some personal trainer study materials. 

The books were sort of overwhelming.  The main manual was 700 pages long.  Another, an exercise science book, delved into intimidating anatomy material.  I sat in the meager shade of the Escape waiting for the helicopter to return from dropping water.  It was 100 degrees out.  A micromanaging deck coordinator made enthusiastic laps around the field, intent on finding somebody doing something wrong.  It wasn't the most conducive study environment.

Nevertheless, I persisted.  I peered at people, assessing their posture without their knowledge.  I forced coworkers to undergo mobility tests.  My books went everywhere, getting helicopter flights and road trips. 

Yesterday I entered the exam room nervously.  The Facebook study group I was in had many dire stories of people not passing, or saying how hard they thought the test was.  I could hear someone else clicking computer keys rapidly behind me.  She was taking the same exam.  What if I don't pass and she does? I thought.  

I clicked Submit Exam. After a stressful pause, my results appeared.  I had passed with a really high score! 

What's next? I don't know, besides torturing helping my crew by doing movement and flexibility screens.  Maybe some part time work, or something to do after I get kicked out of firefighting for being too old.  There's this though: there were moments I felt pretty doubtful.  College and studying was a long time ago, I thought.  These books are expensive.  I don't care that much about the digestive system.  But I kept going, because sometimes you should do what's new and maybe a little scary.  Learn something, take the trip, do the thing.  It's always worth it.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Show me the money (or not)

"I heard that the janitors at the Pentagon are the same pay grade as we are," my friend S. said.

I considered this.  "I could be a janitor at the Pentagon.  You probably get to work by yourself."

"You probably don't supervise anybody."

We sat in companionable silence.

"I cleaned the toilet in the hangar today," I said.

"I mopped the floor in my office," he said. 

We giggled.  It wasn't really funny though. Between us we have over fifty years fighting fire, leading others, and managing contracts, among other high risk duties.  Our base pay after all this time is less than people just starting out make in many fields.  A majority of the firefighters on the front lines saving people's property, and sometimes the people themselves, make less than $15 per hour, which is what a lot of employees want for working at fast food restaurants.

I don't know what the janitors actually make.  And look, clean toilets are important! We clean our own bathroom at my office.  We have one toilet for a minimum of 12 people in the summer months, so ignoring this basic task would quickly reduce the office to a level of unacceptable squalor.  But sometimes I wonder if people whose houses are threatened by fire know how little most wildland firefighters are paid (we aren't on the same pay scale or schedule as structural firefighters, by the way).  I wonder if they know that when they read about a firefighter killed on the fireline.

We chose to stay in this profession, so there are a lot of other reasons we are here.  Many people don't get paid to fly over national parks to look for fires, or see the actual physical results of their labor.  When you save a house or even just a hillside, you can look up there and say, I did that.  I was there.

And maybe there is some janitor at the Pentagon reading about firefighters.  "Dang," he says to his buddy.  "Those people who run helitack and hotshot crews make the same as we do! I should do THAT."

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Year round

People still seem surprised sometimes that I work all year.  "But it's winter," they say, "what do you DO?"

I usually say something about paperwork, training, and hiring, because that's most of it.  Hiring just one person for a 6 month seasonal position takes more paperwork than getting married does.  But here's something else: fire is taking less and less time off.

Due to climate change, fuel buildup in the forests, and more people building homes in the woods, fires are starting at times of the year they never used to, and getting bigger and badder. 

One of my employees is in California.  He is currently working on the LA fires, but he has been there for months.  Two others are going to Alabama and North Carolina this winter to fill critical positions.  Last February, some of them were out in Texas and Oklahoma on fires.  There isn't a month of the year that someone from my crew isn't on an assignment somewhere.

A week ago I saw smoke drifting through the trees in the park.  The fire that burned up there for most of the late summer and destroyed a historic chalet was still alive, despite weeks of rain and snow.  No threat anymore, it tenaciously hung on in cedar stumps and downed logs.  Nobody can really believe it.  It's December in the mountains, after all, but there it is.

The bears are starting to hibernate, but we aren't.  We don't unpack our gear anymore in October because you never know.  There is a fire somewhere, and we might need to go.
One of the LA fires. Photo courtesy ABC News.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

How to be annoying at the gym

I joined my first gym in 1991.  I KNOW, I'm so old! Since then, I've belonged to many of them: large, upscale ones, tiny one room places, university gyms, and of course the workplace ones with rickety benches and equipment procured from garage sales. 

The gym I belong to now is expensive, but it's only four miles from my house, so I keep renewing my membership.  It has more than one pool, and stuff I never use, like racquetball courts and a juice bar.  It is very popular, and it's not unusual to cruise the parking lot at 10 am on a weekday and find no open spaces (who are all these people without jobs?).  Even though it's very different from other gyms I've belonged to, some things remain the same.  By that, I mean obnoxious gym behavior.  Let's get to it, shall we?

Here's how to be a gym nuisance, in no particular order:

1.  Notice that there are many, many open treadmills.  Find the one with the person on it, and get on the one next to them.  Look over and see what speed they are running.  Put yours on the same speed.  Look over frequently.  When the person increases their speed, increase yours too, and then a little higher for good measure.  Stay on as long as they do, because everyone loves a little competition, right?

2.  Ask the person on the machine next to you for a date.  When they don't seem receptive, say something like, "I wasn't asking you to get married, I just thought we could have dinner or something," like they did something wrong by not wanting to date you  (This happened to me at a gym).

3.  Correct people's form when you're not a trainer and nobody asked you to.

4.  Locate your friend on an elliptical.  Come over and stand next to their machine and have a loud conversation. 

5.  Get on your cell phone and talk a lot.  Don't bother to go to the lobby.  You're too important for that.

6.  Drop your weights on the ground when you're not at a CrossFit gym.  Do it a lot.  Grunt loudly too.

7.  When the gym is busy, hog several weight machines.  Look annoyed if anyone else wants to work in.  Leave your stuff on the machines so people won't use them.  Sit on a machine and look at facebook or text.

8.   Don't ever clean off the equipment, because you're not that sweaty.

9.  Go to the gym with the flu or some other communicable disease.  Sneeze on and touch everything.

10.  Leave your weight plates on the barbells.  The gym has staff to put them away, don't they? While you're at it, leave towels and dumbbells lying around too.

What am I leaving out?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Brush jacket's back, all right!*

A hotshot named Chet strolled by.  I peered at him.  What was he wearing?

"The '90s called.  They want their brush jacket back!" I said. 

"I found a bunch of these in the sewing loft," Chet, who was too young to fight fire in the '90s, said happily.  "They're great!"

The brush jacket used to be standard issue, along with the green pants, yellow shirt, and hard hat.  Everybody wore one, often with the cold weather liner.  We didn't have nomex fleece then, or the prevalence of merino wool garments.  We couldn't wear anything synthetic because it would melt in a fire.  We had cotton hoodies, but we didn't want to get our own stuff dirty. The brush jackets weren't especially warm or water repellant, and you had to stay on the move, but we were glad to have them.
Katie is wearing a brush jacket here in 2001. Note the handy reflective trim.
I don't remember when or why people stopped wearing them.  I did too, opting to wear a thick cotton hoody under my fire shirt, or a nomex fleece jacket.  I kept my brush jacket though; it traveled along on several moves, a reminder of the national park fire crew where I wore it.

"Let's bring them back," I suggested to Chet.  He was on board.  Billy, one of my crewmembers, perked up when he heard the plan.  "I'm in!" he said, being old enough to remember wearing them.

Will we look nerdy, as if we were wearing the old "radio bra" harnesses that have also largely disappeared from the fireline? Maybe, but we'll be having fun.  Some things should stay in the past: gaucho pants, mullets, and soul patches, to name a few.  But old school brush jackets? Just maybe we will start a new trend.

*Is "Everybody" by the Backstreet Boys stuck in your head now? You're welcome.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

All over the map

Interesting places I've lived because of my job:
  • A travel trailer in the California desert
  • A log cabin built by a Cub Scout and his dad, with a stream for water and a hollow tree stump for an outhouse
  • A park service ranger station in Arizona two hours away from any type of store
  • A tent in a campground in Washington, for two summers
  • A rented room in a house that was paid for by one pot crop ( I learned this later)
  • Various bunkhouses
  • A former one room schoolhouse in South Dakota
I hear people say things like "I could never live in..." fill in the blank: a big city, small town, arctic climate, etc.  This isn't really the truth.  Of course, they physically could; they just might not like it, or thrive there, or just maybe they would surprise themselves and be okay with it. 

I moved a lot, and to places I thought I would never consider.  I had to, because there weren't a lot of seasonal jobs available in the most desirable locations, and certainly no permanent jobs.  I lived in remote outposts and in one big city (Honolulu), and in more than one place where I drove up, looked around, and thought, what have I done?

Still, I adapted, everywhere I went, and it makes me curious every time I go to a new place.  What would it be like to live here? I think.  Sometimes my initial impression, especially in a large city, is how hard it would be.  So many people! So much traffic! But then I think, public transportation. Lakes with running trails.  Inexpensive gyms.  Maybe this wouldn't be terrible.

I'll probably always be a country mouse rather than a city one.  I'll always prefer mountains to flat landscapes.  I probably won't live in any more trailers or tents.  But because I did it, and found the good, hidden things in all those places, I know I could.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Dry Needling: I tried it

The physical therapist frowned at my arm.  "This muscle is like parachute cord. It's all knotted up!" he said.  "And your arm isn't straight."

I first felt a twinge in my right arm a few years ago.  A fire was threatening to escape the boundaries of a prescribed burn, so I industriously pulled a charged section of inch and a half hose down the line to catch it.  The burn didn't get away, but afterward my elbow and forearm hurt.

Hmm, I thought, but as someone who doesn't normally get injured, I ignored it.  This seemed to be a good strategy at the time, because the pain went away.  Sometimes I would feel it when I did biceps curls, but a couple days of rest always seemed to cure it, until one fateful day.

An enterprising hotshot created a workout machine where the exerciser pulled a heavy rope (with the option to attach weights) using several different stances and techniques.  Really feeling the burn, I thought, as I pulled enthusiastically.  And I was, but not in a good way.  Attack of the tennis elbow with a vengeance!

In the following weeks and then months, I was heard to say "Ow! ow!" while doing the following innocuous things:  lifting a backpack, opening a door, and basically anything that involved a gripping motion.  But wildfire doesn't stop for lateral epicondylitis, and I found myself hauling heavy things, using tools, and feeling intense pain for much of the season.

Eventually I landed at the physical therapist's office.  Weeks of rest and an arm band, plus weirdly lifting weights with only one arm, hadn't really helped.  My employee raved about dry needling.  "I only had to go once and it cured my tennis elbow!" he declared.

While dry needling might sound and even look like acupuncture, it isn't the same thing.  It's not based on traditional Chinese medicine but instead is intended to stimulate muscle trigger points, areas that are knotted and contracted as a response to injury. It's supposed to help release the knot and muscle tightness or stiffness.  (It's called "dry" because nothing is injected with the needle, like a steroid).

I eyed some large needles.  "Oh, those are the ones for backs and butts!" the therapist said cheerfully.  The ones he used for my elbow are thin and feel like getting blood drawn when they are inserted.  But when the needle hits the trigger point, it causes an involuntary twitch and hurts a lot, not gonna lie.  It's over quickly though.

Does it work? I think so. I've gone three times now, and I'm back to lifting light weights with my affected arm. The pain no longer radiates down my arm.  I can't feel the knots anymore that the therapist showed me.  But it hasn't been a miracle cure, and it's still going to be awhile to be 100% better.  I have to stretch my forearm several times a day, and I bought a contraption called a  Theraband Flexbar to exercise with (it's on Amazon, if you're in need of one).

I'll report back in a couple of weeks after my last appointment. In the meantime, has anyone reading tried dry needling? What did you think?


Saturday, October 28, 2017


National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255.
Please talk to somebody.
 You're not alone.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Still at it

The day the helicopter flies away is sort of bittersweet.  On one hand, it means the season is pretty much over, and there's time to relax, wander a little farther from the base, and stop wearing fire pants every day.  Still, I'm always kind of sad, because we like our pilots and mechanics, and because our reason for being a helicopter crew just left.

Two minions and I sat in the office trailer, doing tedious paperwork.  We noticed the wind picking up (it's hard not to when your office is a singlewide trailer).  Chatter on the radio ensued.  Trees were falling all over the valley, downing powerlines.  Several small fires broke out from the sparks and from misguided private debris burns.  One quickly expanded to 40 acres.

We gathered our gear and went to help.  This time of year, fires aren't as stubborn; with shorter days, cooler nights, and recent rainfall, it was easy to extinguish stray embers.  An ATV with a water tank arrived to help, so we made short work of it, eyeing the trees as 40 mile an hour winds buffeted them. Two large green firs cracked loudly and crashed to the ground nearby. Not wanting to be underneath the next one, we grabbed our tools and got to stepping.

Today it's raining, and snow levels are expected to fall.  That's what firefighting is like in the mountains.  One day you're chasing fire, and the next day you're hiding from the storm.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Visiting my spirit animal

The road through the park is closed, partly for the fire but also for construction.  Winter would soon close it anyway.  I drive it, to check on the fire and to make sure a helicopter landing site is clear. 

It's strange, being on this road with nobody on it.  The construction crews don't work on weekends, and the fire crews are working on unwrapping structures, so no vehicles pass.  In the summers, it can take hours to drive the entire road, and parking spaces at the visitor center at the summit sometimes fill by 8:30 am.  Now it is deserted and filled with yellow aspen leaves.
 I imagine that the wildlife is breathing a sigh of relief to have the park back. Two black bears, a sow and cub, stand in the road.  They move unconcernedly into the brush, where the cub climbs a tree and retrieves a small carcass, a marmot perhaps, leaving me to wonder how it got there: did they stash it? did an eagle drop it? They eat, their teeth loudly breaking bones. 

Further along, mountain goats cling to the cliffs.  A young one jumps around, not bothered by the falling snow.  Their white fur is long and thick for winter. 

A lot of people would think that if I could be an animal, I would be a cat.  There's a lot of truth to this; I've been called "curious kitty" more than once.  But as much as I love cats, the mountain goat would be my choice.  I want to climb to the peaks and the high lonely meadows where they live, and scramble fearlessly on granite cliffs.  I know they don't think as we do, but I like to imagine they see the beauty all around them.

Snow falls and I retreat lower, down to the fire still smoking in the rain.  High above, the bears and goats move through the late afternoon, waiting for the silence of winter.

Sunday, October 1, 2017


Snap (or Slap) tember has drawn to a close, and Octoverit has begun! 

Even if you didn't have a calendar, there are ways you would know this month is finally here:

The minions start to flee, even if there is work available.  One is in school, a series of rabies shots behind him and a resolve to avoid all skunks in the future newly adopted.  The others are busy making plans that don't include digging hose and pumps out of the snow on the local fire.

 The end of season sniffles have made an appearance.  The person who first appeared stricken is widely referred to as "patient zero" and "carrier monkey," but close quarters take their toll, and eventually everyone falls victim. 

Things start to fall apart.  D. fixes his torn pants with duct tape, hoping to make it through another couple weeks.  The plumbing at the base fails, leaving us without running water and bathrooms, relegating everyone to porta potties.  The codes we are supposed to charge our time to don't work.  People's computers won't connect to the internet.  It's as if the universe is telling us fire season should be over.

Surliness resurges.  "We're living in squalor!" I've been known to yell, prompting a frenzied bout of cleaning.  "This is why we can't have nice things," a minion sighs after something breaks.  We engage in armchair speculation while listening to radio transmissions:  what is that crew DOING? what are they THINKING?

Weather forecasts vary widely. It's going to rain! No, it's going to snow 3 inches! Wait, no, it's going to be 60 and sunny.  We don't trust any of it.  This time of year, it could go either way.  If you don't bring a puffy jacket, a raincoat, and running shorts to work, you must be a rookie.

"Octoverit," we mutter, walking to morning briefing in the dark.  But the snowline creeps lower on the mountains ever day, and we know it'll be done soon.  And even if we want it to end, when we are deep into winter, we will sort of miss it.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Hello Snaptember!

 You managed to hold it together for Dirty August, the month where you're working all the time, the fires just won't stop, and you've seen the same people's faces every day.  You thought you were in the clear, that the glide into September would be trouble-free and easy.  But no...Snaptember is here!

This is the month when even the nicest firefighters can lose it.  You're sick of everybody.  The sound of a crewmember's typing on the keyboard drives you nuts.  The air support group supervisor won't leave you alone.  Everything in the fire lunch looks awful.  Nobody better ask you a question.

You don't REALLY hate everybody.  You're not really sick of your job.  But when you're sleep deprived, getting rained on, not able to make it to the gym, and around the same people fourteen hours a day, every first world problem seems insurmountable.  It's all you can do to keep Snaptember from turning into SLAPtember.

Luckily, after many seasons, you know it can't last.  It finally snows in the mountains.  Fires start releasing people.  It's bound to end at some point. 

Unless, of course, it doesn't, and that's when Snaptember turns into Octoverit....

(to be continued)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

What I'll miss

As I near the end of my career as a wildland firefighter, my thoughts are scattered like smoke drifting through the forest. Sometimes I just want to be done, to put my boots and my constant state of readiness up on a shelf for good.  I want to have summer, and spring and fall, without having to go away or have a bag packed to go away.  I want to see fire for what it is: a force of nature like a hurricane or a flood, not something to be fought or managed.

But this life isn't going to let go of me so easily.  I get out of the helicopter at sunset and think, how can I leave this?

I'll miss seeing fire run across the landscape like it's alive, like it was meant to.
A fire last week in the wilderness
I'll miss seeing wild, lonely places where almost nobody goes.
I'll miss the small fires with one or two people, nothing needed but your pulaski and chainsaw to contain it, and then wrapping up in a sleeping bag under the stars on a high unnamed ridge.
I'll miss my tribe.  I've spent so many days and nights with them, flying in the mountains, hiking over hills, dragging tools through the dirt, chasing fire.  I'll miss them most of all.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

smoke and sorrow

I don't want to see your house burn.  I've seen it before, and it is a beautiful and terrible thing, the flames almost seeming alive as they climb the walls and curl around the windows.  Don't be mistaken: even if we call your home a "structure" or even fuel for a fire, it hurts our hearts if we can't save it.

Two weeks ago I flew to a historic chalet in the park to evacuate guests and take out belongings and gear for the staff.  The building stood in this wild and lonely spot since 1913, providing a rustic place to sleep for anyone lucky enough to reserve a space.  This year it sold out in about five minutes.  The pilot and I wandered through the chalet, picking out which rooms we would want to stay in.  The fire was a long ways off,  creeping around in the next drainage.  Maybe it would never get there.

But it didn't rain.  The weather stayed hot and dry for the next two weeks, and the winds increased, pushing the fire up the mountain.  The firefighters made their stand one night against an ember shower, running hoses and sprinklers in a desperate fight.  Four helicopters dropped water, but in the end the chalet caught fire and lit up the night like a giant candle.  It was gone in an hour.

There is a deep sadness here;  so many of us remember hiking to this spot and seeing the chalet finally appear after several miles of steep trail.  It was a place loved by people throughout the world.  It was only a building, but it was full of over a hundred years of memories.

Still, everyone is safe.  The firefighters were able to save the other buildings and they were uninjured in the firefight.  Perhaps the chalet will be rebuilt someday.  Until then, I'm grateful I got to visit it, both on foot and by air.  Now we continue the fight.  There are houses and people still in harm's way.  We will do everything we can to keep the fires from their doors.

My last view of the chalet

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Ops normal

...well, as normal as they can be when you're working over 50 extra hours a week and the air is full of smoke.

The minions are hanging in there, although Dirty August is about to turn into Snaptember.  A building boom ensues, with a saw bench and crash rescue box being constructed. T. builds a contemplation bench for the arboretum.  With so many of us here due to the extreme fire danger, our garden gets unprecedented attention, and I wander around eating cherry tomatoes off the plants.  The clerks at the local store look bemused as we buy ice cream, chips, and chocolate.  We eat these things until someone declares that they want a salad, kicking off a round of healthy eating.

At fire camp, C. is bitten by a skunk as he compassionately takes a beer can off its head; he begins a series of rabies shots.  A new t-shirt design is conceptualized, puzzlingly involving a pterodactyl.  T. gets in some saw practice, learning the keyhole cut.  J. attempts to plan winter travel, but gets stymied by how many countries there are in Central and South America: he wants to see them all.  We are able to exercise a little; there is bear scat on the running trails.

It stays hot and dry.  New fires start.  Old ones roar back to life, causing evacuations and residents to grumble about air quality.  We do the best we can, but we have had almost no rain since June and resources are limited. Still, it always ends.  Flying along the lake, I see a single yellow larch tree.  It's an outlier: its neighbors' needles won't turn for weeks yet.  But they will.

So we work, while other people hike and float around in boats.  We don't complain, because it's what we signed up for.  For some of us, it's just what we know, while the new people are still trying to figure out if it's what they want.  Fall is around the corner, but for now we are here, flying and hiking these hills, following the smoke.

Monday, August 21, 2017


I walked into the funeral home without a plan.  Although I  hadn't ever met Brent, a firefighter killed by a falling tree, I've been a firefighter so long that in a way I did know him.  He was every fire brother I've ever known.  It could so easily have been someone I loved. 

The room was full of hotshots.  Most of them didn't know Brent either, but they had stayed with him all night and all day since he had arrived here so he wouldn't be alone.

I didn't know what to say.  It was a sterile place that reminded me of a hotel lobby.  I didn't feel anything here.  Rest in peace?  It's a comforting statement for some, but most firefighters I know aren't ready for that.  They would want to be here still, stirring things up.

The next day there would be a procession.  The white hearse would turn onto the street, flanked by hotshot superintendents' trucks.  At the airport there would be an honor guard and bagpipes.  The bagpipes would make most of us cry.  The coffin, covered with an American flag, would be loaded onto the Sherpa airplane, and Brent would take his final journey home to California.

Watching all this, I would wish not that we weren't so good at this, because it's important to the family and friends that we are, but that we weren't so used to this.  We know how to line up and file into a stadium or onto the tarmac. We know what the honor guard's commands mean.  The hotshots already have black armbands, sewn not for the last service but for the one before that.  We know what to expect when the bagpipes start, and we are ready for it.

I left the funeral home feeling empty.  There were no answers or peace there for me.  On an impulse,  I pulled off the highway.  There was no sign for where I was going, but I found it anyway.  I parked my truck and walked up a dirt driveway into the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas.

It was quiet except for the wind and my footsteps as I walked in a circle around the grounds.  Buddhas were everywhere, on walls, as statues, and tucked in nooks throughout the garden.  I touched a prayer wheel, looking for a place to stop.  I found it on a bench overlooking a pond.

All my ghosts were here; the pilots, firefighters and friends I've known who died too soon.  I looked at the water.  The Buddhas in the garden didn't ask anyone to believe in anything.  They were just there, serene.  Anyone was welcome to come here and stay awhile.

"I'm sorry, Brent. Take care," I said.  And I walked out of the garden back into my life.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


Too busy to write, so here are a few pictures of what I've been doing:

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

In the shade of a Ford Escape: Hot times at a fire called Sunrise

It was hot, one hundred degrees hot.  The sun beat down on the treeless airstrip.  The pilots had retreated hours ago to their air-conditioned trailer and were watching the Tour de France on their satellite TV.  They deserved the perks though; after all they had been flying 7 or 8 hours a day on the fire that was up in the hills ten miles away.

The Sunrise Fire was angry, like the other fires around it in western Montana.  Every day around four o'clock when the temperature was at its warmest, it would throw a tantrum, crossing roads meant to be containment lines, threatening houses, and spewing embers up to a mile in front of it. 

I wasn't on the front lines.  All I could do was watch it and send the aircraft to it, where they dropped nine hundred gallons of water at a time over and over again.  While the pilots were out flying, I did the daily paperwork.  I moved my chair around following the meager shade of a small hybrid car.  When I couldn't stand it anymore, I walked down the ramp to visit J. and B., two other helicopter managers who were usually up for a distraction.

J., looking tired, asked me where I was camping.  The helibase, stuck between the interstate and a busy frontage road, was far too noisy.  I hesitated, but he seemed cool, so I divulged my spot, a fishing access site. 

You can ease into a river like that, still cold in late July, but it's better to just jump in, even though it takes your breath away.  Even though it would be ten at night before I got to camp, I would lie down in the water, just for a minute or two.  At noon when the sun was at its highest and there was no shade, I thought about that river.  It was the best part of every day. When you're living outdoors, it doesn't take much to make you happy.

After two weeks, the fire was still angry, but it was time for me to go. I briefed my replacement on what he needed to know.  There were pilot duty logs that needed to be carefully monitored because they were flying so many hours.  There were relief crew costs that needed to be entered, and upcoming maintenance to be aware of, as well as helibase quirks.  It was all important, but so was the river.  I gave him directions to the campsite.  If all goes well, he should be jumping into the water right about now.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

View from the front seat

This is why I stopped moving up, even though many of my former coworkers and even those I trained when they were rookies have gone past me as they climbed the ladder.

This is why I still come to work.

 I could have a nice office.  I could have a higher base salary.  I could have the respect accorded those who have achieved a higher pay grade.  But then I wouldn't have days like today, flying through the mountains in a helicopter to look for fires, looking at lakes still frozen in high alpine cirques and lonely green valleys.

It was the right choice.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Thoughts from a sky house

Whenever I arrive at a fire lookout, I'm momentarily seized by the thought that I need to be doing something.  I rush around, unpacking my backpack, sweeping the floor, checking the firefinder to make sure I still know how to use it.  This usually lasts for awhile, until I realize that I have plenty of time.  That the job of a fire lookout is just to be there.

Current and former lookouts will know this is somewhat of a misleading statement.  There's plenty of work to do at a lookout, if you are the regular occupant.  Many of the buildings are historic, so require a lot of upkeep: painting, roof work, stove maintenance.  There's always trail work, and then daily life chores: hauling water, cleaning, cooking.
Everything you need.
 But if you're a transient lookout like me,  especially if only up for one night like I was recently, starting a project isn't necessary.  And eventually I stop trying to keep busy.  I drag a chair out onto the catwalk, bringing binoculars and a book.

I watch the sun move across the peaks.  It won't set until almost 10.  I can see the trailhead seven miles and nearly 3000 vertical feet below.  Boats crisscross the lake, carrying people out camping for the extended Fourth of July weekend.  Mountain goats cling to the rocks above.  I look for bears in Silver Basin, but don't see any.
There were mountain goats up there
I go to sleep when it's dark.  I can't see any lights, not even a campfire.  In the morning as I pack up, I hear a noise under the tower.  I think bear, but when I go to look, it is an industrious marmot, chewing on something, fat and content.

Lookout time is different than city time.  Up here, time seems to move more slowly, but the hours aren't filled with busy, often meaningless activity.  Standing on the catwalk and looking out at the mountains is a kind of meditation. As I descend toward civilization, I carry the quiet and serenity with me.
The beargrass this year! It's amazing.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

hanging around

"Why aren't you on a fire?" someone asks.  It might be simple curiosity, but coming from a person who is always trying to get out on assignment, it sounds a bit judgey.  After all, I could be on one. 

There are a lot of firefighters who make themselves available as soon as the first wisp of smoke appears anywhere in the country.  Some will put themselves ahead of their seasonal, broke employees and flee first, leaving others to pick up their responsibilities.  They get away with this, because after all, firefighting is our primary job, although most of us realize that the administrative and teaching part of our positions have mushroomed almost out of control.

After 30 years of doing this, I'm not in a hurry to rush out the door.  It's a slow season, after all: despite a few large fires making the news, there's not much going on, and a lot of resources are available.  And then there's this:

  On Friday I met up with some new hiking friends and drove to the east side of the national park.  We hiked along a lake and to a series of waterfalls.
A fire from two years ago had burned through part of the area.  While there were lots of burned trees, the fire had also opened up the forest, and its floor was covered with wildflowers.
I'm not in a hurry to get out on the road.  The fires will come, but if they don't, I know how to live within my means without the additional income.  For now, I'm content to just be here.  I'm not missing out on anything.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Girl Pants

I nervously approached the fire cache on my first day on a hotshot crew in 1992.  Burly men rushed around handing out gear to us rookies: bright yellow fire resistant shirts, sleeping bags, backpacks.  Although I had fought fire for a few years, this was a new level. 

"Can I have some old style pants?" I asked.  Mark the squad boss paused and sized me up, before rummaging through a pile of green pants to find my size.  Months later he approached me to say, "When you asked for old style pants, I knew you were all right."

"Old style pants" were seemingly modeled on 1980s dress pants: wide legged, with slash pockets in front, they had no place for storage, requiring the occupant to carry pens, small notebooks, and other items in an infernally uncomfortable harness around the chest widely referred to as a "radio bra" because it also housed a two way radio.  They were not fashionable pants, but they were comfortable, and far better than what was replacing them at the time: the infamous "jean style."
It's hard to tell, but I'm wearing the old style pants here.
I have no pictures of the jeans, because I held onto my threadbare old style pants as long as possible.  The jeans were based on a man's body, with legs that constricted while climbing over logs and brush in the woods.  They were widely disliked.  Still, some people in recent years have tried to bring them back.  On one of my crews they were called "discos," as in, "Tom is rocking the discos today."

Some well-intentioned soul designed a women's version of these jeans.  A true high rise mom jean, they either gapped in the waist and grabbed the hips like a boa constrictor, or vice versa.  Most women avoided these and resigned themselves to the men's pants.

Cargo pants were the next to appear. Smokejumpers, known for their sewing ability, tinkered with them, coming up with Kevlar and other versions. I grabbed a prototype pair and never looked back.  These pants, while still designed for men, fit loosely and had tons of pockets, so the dorky radio bra could be abandoned.  They still had issues: being built for a man, the pants sagged, chafed women's legs, and were usually too long.  But they were better than anything else we had tried.
Cargo pants, 1997
Two years ago, a female engine foreman approached me.  "I bought some girl pants!" she exclaimed. "I can help you get some too."

A private company had developed cargo pants for women.  Low rise, they fit comfortably and true to size, unlike some "vanity size" pants (Prana, I'm looking at you: while flattering, there is no way I should be a size 2).  But there was a problem.  Because there was a single source we were supposed to buy from, these pants were off limits for us.  She had found a loophole, though.

In order to buy them, she had to create a "job hazard analysis," basically outlining the problems with men's pants: the chafing, uncomfortable seams, sagging.  In 2017, it seems ridiculous to have to do this to get pants that fit women.  But it was what we had to do, and in the end, we had our "girl pants."

Since it's a hassle to get them, we guard them carefully. Project work? Barbed wire in the area? Throw on the cargos.  Handing them out to crew members? Make sure they give them back at the end of the season.  It's a sign of progress, though, finally.  Yay for girl pants!
Picture from here

Friday, June 9, 2017

(Yet Another) Trail Report

What to do when it's supposed to rain, but you just have to get out? Hit the trail, of course!

On Sunday I met my group of trusty millennials.  It was almost two, not exactly an alpine start, but one of them had to work, and it stays light until almost 10 anyway.  We piled into an old jeep and headed south.

The weather forecast called for a 50% chance of rain and thunderstorms, with high winds.  We went anyway.  Instead it was sunny and 80 degrees.  Everyone else was coming down as we headed up, a bonus of starting late.

The forest opened up into a bowl filled with a subalpine lake, still mostly frozen in this first week of June.  We roamed around on snow still so deep that we were looking down at the trail signs.  Below, the bear grass was just starting to bloom. 

Strawberry Lake.  Some people were (trying to) fish.
The trail from here is still under deep snow.
For most of my hiking companions, this was their last hike before they headed out to fires in the Southwest, although they didn't know it then.  I'll stay a little longer, which doesn't bother me.  Look at this place. It's so hard to leave. 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Be the Anomaly

I'm a woman who has fought fire for thirty years.  Unlike most of the females I started out with, I didn't quit to do something else or raise a family.  I didn't move into upper management or into a job that, while still fire-related, would have allowed me to choose whether I wanted to be on the fireline or not.  I still work in a position where I'm expected to respond to fires and other emergencies at a moment's notice.  There are plenty of men who have done this; they retire with accolades and maybe a nice painting or a shiny Pulaski tool mounted in a frame.

There aren't very many women, though, and there will be less still, as fewer and fewer apply to firefighting jobs.  Because of this I am somewhat of an anomaly.  But this isn't the only reason.

A text out of the blue from someone I used to know caused me to think about how we see ourselves.  There is what we know about ourselves and other people also know, explained a fire management officer in Alabama this spring in a moment of reflection.  Then there is what we know about ourselves and nobody else knows.  The last part is what other people know about us but we don't know; the Jahari window.

But what if what we think we know about ourselves is wrong?

So many of us see ourselves through a warped mirror.  We are at times unattractive, boring, socially awkward.  Too fat or too thin.  We don't exercise enough.  We are bad supervisors or parents.  We are unlovable.

This kind of thinking caused me to join the other young women in college who barely ate and ran miles and miles along the lakeshore every day.  It kept me in a bad marriage for too long and then caused me to choose the wrong people, the ones who lied and secretly loved others and then left.

But it wasn't the truth, and it's not your truth either.  You are someone's unicorn, even if you haven't met them yet.  You're an anomaly too.  Believe it.


Monday, May 29, 2017

We're all the same on the trail

Generation X and Baby Boomers complain about millennials.  They're entitled.  They're always on their devices.  Millennials complain about Gen X/Baby Boomers.  They're out of touch.  They left the younger generations with a mess.  You hear both sides a lot.

This weekend I got to hike with both generations.  On Saturday, I met up with some women in my hiking group.  I hadn't ever met them, but most of them turned out to be around my age.  We laughed and talked all the way to an unmanned fire lookout in the park.  It didn't hurt that it seemed to be Hot Guy Hiking Day...each one coming down the trail was cuter than the next, culminating in one we called "Captain America," who strode around the peak with perfect hair and a movie star face.
"Captain America" is not in this picture, so stop looking.
On Monday, I joined a group of millennials for a hike to another lookout.  Some were my employees, and may or may not have been apprehensive to hike with "the boss." Still, we hiked along companionably, abandoning the trail in deep snow and heading straight up, picking up two young women on the way who had turned around after seeing bear tracks, convincing them to come with us.

Each group was at different stages in their lives.  The first group talked about their kids and places they had traveled.  The second group, young enough to be my kids, talked about places they wanted to go and jobs they wanted to get.  Despite that, they were similar where it counted.  We were all amazed by the mountains.  We all watched out for each other on the trail.  We talked and laughed and told stories.  We wondered about peak names and flowers.  We were all happy to be out on the trail.

We really aren't so different.  Maybe we just need to go hiking together more.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Hike with me (please!)

As I drove toward the trailhead, I felt optimistic.  Yes, there are bears everywhere around here, but the trail traverses fairly open terrain, burned in a fire over 10 years ago.  I hiked it by myself last year and didn't even see bear tracks.  The people I had tried to get to come hiking today were sleepy and didn't want to commit.  Still, I had bear spray and could yell "Hey Bear" with the best of them.  Seeing one was pretty unlikely...right?

Some vehicles were stopped in the middle of the road.  This can be pretty typical national park behavior.  Like in Walmart parking lots, people sometimes forget basic driving skills when they enter a park.  However, the people in the cars were gazing intently into the woods.  Memories of my former career as a park ranger began to surface.  This could only be one thing: a bear jam!

Sure enough, a cinnamon colored bear was eating happily a few feet from the road.  Rudely interrupted by the cars, it loped off into the woods, leaving me to continue uneasily toward the trailhead.  Was this a sign? Would my hike be overrun by bears?

Gathering my gear, I spied a woman preparing to set off on the trail.  "Do you want to hike together?" I asked, ambushing her.  In effect, this really gave her no choice unless she wanted to come across as kind of mean.  Luckily, she turned out to be easy going and seemed happy to have a companion.

A. was training to climb Mt. Adams; although the trail gained more than a thousand feet a mile, she moved out rapidly, not bothered by little rolling rocks and snowfields.  We discovered we had worked in some of the same places; she had been a firefighter in the past.  I had found a new hiking buddy!

I don't think you can ever have too many hiking buddies.  My schedule is erratic in the summer, making meetups difficult.  Trail friends go on vacations, have obligations, or get injured.  It's always good to have plenty of people who can join a hike, especially in bear country (four is supposed to be an optimal group size).

We paused at the top, the site of an old fire lookout, before the downhill slog.  Glacier lilies dotted the hillside.  The peaks in the park were still coated in white, but winter had lost its grip at last.  Fire season will be late here, but I don't mind.  After thirty years of fighting fire, I'll take the mountains and trails (and new friends) instead.
View from the top

Sunday, May 14, 2017

how to be found

We just finished a six day search for a lost hiker.  She was found alive and well, but this is unusual.  I've never found a living person in a search before.  During the week, I often thought of younger me.
Looking for Madeline
Younger me, a free spirit, traipsed solo around national parks and forests, usually foregoing essentials like fire starter, many times not informing anyone of hiking destinations or plans.  I like to think I'm smarter now, but realized that I had gone on a hike in the same wilderness in which we were searching only a week earlier.  Because it was a short hike, I rationalized that I didn't need a lot of stuff, and there would probably be people there (there weren't), so I didn't have to leave an itinerary.

If you go missing in my area, we will search for you.  We will risk our own lives scrambling on rough terrain in grizzly bear country and flying low and slow in helicopters.  We will do this whether or not you were really lost, if you did something dumb like jumping in a fast river or venturing out past a warning sign, and we will even search if we really have no idea where you might be.  But if you really want to be found, here are some things to do:

  • Go with someone else.  Or don't, but let someone know where you are going and when you'll be back.  Even a note in your car is better than nothing (we will break into it).
  • Do some research.  I'm constantly surprised at the people I see heading up a 12 mile trail at 4 pm, not knowing where it goes or anything about the area. Sunrise/sunset times are good to know.
  • Carry stuff.  Water, food, warm clothes,  first aid supplies, bear spray if in grizzly habitat.
  • Bring something to start a fire.  It will keep you warm on an unexpected bivouac, and you can use it to signal searchers.  You can see smoke a long way away, and believe me, if you start a fire, firefighters will come.
  • Consider carrying personal locator beacons, SPOT receivers, etc. 
  • Take your phone.  Even if there's no service, if you turn it on, your location can be pinged.
  • Please, for all that is good and holy, don't leave your common sense at the trailhead.  Warning signs are there for a reason.  Rivers are cold and fast in the spring.  Bears are grumpy and need to hear you coming. 
  • Be aware.  If you go off trail, memorize landmarks.  Take  a map and compass, or carry a GPS, but know how to use them.
Being part of a search party is pretty terrible.  You think of all the things that could have happened: bear attacks, drowning, hypothermia.  The parents are often there, desperately holding onto hope.  You wish that the person had just told someone their plans, turned back sooner, carried more gear.  Finding the body is almost a relief sometimes.  At least then you know.

If you disappear, we will look for you.  But before you step on the mountain or the trail, please take a moment to think.  Please help us find you.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

My phone thinks I'm lazy, and other randomness

I've been traveling so much for work lately that I haven't had many outdoor adventures.  It's still snowy in the mountains, so there aren't any fires to report.  Hence, a list of miscellaneous observations from the last week.

I have a step app on my phone.  It came with it, but I never really use it, because I don't take my phone into the gym, to run, or really anywhere I would generate steps, unless I take it hiking so I can take pictures.  Consequently, my phone is pretty disappointed with me.  "You haven't been very active lately," it chastises.  "Do you want to readjust your goal?" It seemed unreasonably happy when I got 40,000 steps while climbing a volcano in Iceland, but now it seems I keep letting it down.

I saw two people smoking outside the gym and thought it was pretty funny.  If I were a smoker, I'd probably walk over by the grocery store instead.

The person in the middle seat on the plane always gets the armrests! ALWAYS.  Why do people still not know this?

You can grow out of a lot of things.  Apparently, an allergy to poison ivy is not one of these things.

I'm so used to traveling by myself that I'm probably somewhat annoying at times to a travel companion.  I don't want to sit next to a bunch of other people in the airport, worry that I'll get a middle seat if mine is unassigned (I did), and announce that we are going to miss our connection (we did).  Sorry...

Southern hospitality is a real thing.  Why are you people so nice?

I've been seeing men wearing leggings, and not just in the gym.  Men in leggings: pro or con? Discuss.

Speaking of leggings, most men seem to think that yoga pants and leggings are the same thing. No, no, no.  They are not.

That's about it in this corner of the blogiverse.  What's going on in yours?

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The light at the end of the tunnel

On the surface, Thursday looked like any other day.  It was rainy and chilly.  I was in a week long class about how to plan memorials for line of duty deaths and how to care for survivors and families.  It was inspiring, but also depressing.  I felt somewhat irritable and sad.

BUT.  Despite appearances, Thursday was a unique day.  It was the day I was eligible to retire.

Retirement often conjures up an image of an elderly person, but, although I may seem old to the 21 year olds I hire, I'm not elderly.  I'm also (unfortunately) not a millionaire, one of the other categories of people who can retire early.  I am, however, a federal wildland firefighter, and we (along with law enforcement) have this benefit.

Long ago, it was determined that firefighters needed to be "young and vigorous." No oldsters wanted on the fireline! Because of this, you can't get initially hired into a permanent firefighting or law enforcement position after age 37.  At age 57, they kick you out.  Before 57, if you have 20 years in as a permanent employee at age 50 (seasonal time doesn't count if it was after 1989), or 25 years at ANY age, you can retire with full benefits.

It sounds great.  And really, it is.  Very few people can or want to be digging fireline and carrying 50 pound packs for 16 hours a day at age 65, and we don't have to.  Many of my coworkers have slipped discs, aching shoulders, and little cartilage left in their knees 20 years before that.  But there are some drawbacks.

Not many of us can afford to fully retire at 50, or even 57.  We don't make very much money considering the hazardous work we do.  A brand new college graduate in a lot of fields out earns many of us in the height of our careers.  Old firefighters used to be able to move into dispatch, but now there are career dispatchers we can't out compete for the jobs.  Spending so much time fighting fire, we are often left without the skills to do something else.

There's always options though.  Many retirees come back in the summer to get picked up on an as needed basis if there are fires.  You can go work for a state agency; they don't care how old you are.  You can go back to work at the agency in some other capacity if you have the ability.  Some people have saved enough that they don't need to do anything at all.

I still went to work on Friday.  I don't know what the future holds.  I could stick it out until they make me leave, or three consecutive bad days in a row could make the decision for me.  It's a little frightening, but also exciting.  Every footstep on the fireline and every helicopter flight has eventually led to this new chapter.  I'm looking forward to writing it.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Where's the fire?

Every once in awhile I realize that the word "fire" is in the title of this blog, but in fact I don't write that often about fire.  Sometimes I think I should, but then I think, not really.

Sometimes, not very often, I'll come across a fire blog.  Most of the time they have been abandoned for years.  If it's a new one, the person will write earnestly about firefighting tactics and strategies.  He or she might second guess the decisions made during fatality fires.  But usually these blogs die out, or cease to be interesting except to new firefighters.  The ones that remain still talk about fire, but also other things: hiking, photography, or thoughts about life.

I recently took a class on resilience and work/life balance.  It was all the stuff we know, but don't always do.  Exercise (well, I do that), nutrition (I try!) and your life beyond the workplace (I'm not always so great at that).  As a firefighter, it's easy to tip the balance.  It's a demanding job.  You're gone a lot.  You don't get vacations in the summer, or holidays, or special events.  You spend more time with your coworkers than anyone else.

But we are ultimately all replaceable.  Fires eventually go out.  The job takes a toll on your body and for some, your mental state.  Firefighter suicide rates are high.  I've known a few people who have taken that path.  There has to be something else besides the job, even if it is your passion.

So I'll still write about fire, but today here is a picture of a lake I hiked to.  It's not a long hike, but there was still a lot of snow.  Even in snowshoes, I slid around and fell in.  I saw bear tracks and thought about turning around, but instead yelled louder.  The lake is just now starting to lose its winter ice.

It'll be a long time before fire comes to this forest.  It's barely spring here.  But there's plenty of time for that.  I'd rather be out here today, in the snow and sunshine.