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