Sunday, January 28, 2018


A couple years ago one of my fire buddies was sounding off about the size of his anticipated tax refund.  Suffice to say it was in the five digit range.  Knowing his salary, I was horrified. "They're taking too much out!" I said.  "The government is using your money for free all year and you're not getting any interest on it!"

He was unfazed.  "Redneck savings account," he yelled.  "If I had that money in the summer, I'd just spend it.  Now I get it in the winter when I need it."

Like a large part of the wildland firefighting force, my buddy gets put in "non pay status" for six months out of the year, even though he is considered to be a permanent employee.  Not surprisingly, most of  these firefighters obsessively count their overtime hours, scrounge for off season work, and take any assignment they can get, to make ends meet.  Money is something we all talk about a lot.

I'm starting to get itchy feet.  The travel bug is biting.  It's been almost three years since my last trip.  I want to hike in Norway, go back to Iceland, climb a mountain in Russia.  My miser side fights with my spontaneous side.  I think about the retirees I know, still going on the road to fight fire as needed, even though some of them don't want to.  And then I think of the others who saved every penny, stayed home, and retired at 50, never looking back.  Then there are those who meant to travel and see the world, but they never did.  They thought they could do it later, but an accident or a disease lurking in their body's cells took them first.

It's a delicate balance.  I'd have more money for the future if I hadn't climbed in Nepal, hiked in Patagonia, or camped in Antarctica.  But I can't imagine my life without those experiences.  Maybe I'll have to follow the wildfires for a few more years because of them.  But I've seen the sun rise over seven continents.  It was a good choice.
Antarctica, no filter.  Cheap? No. Worth it? Yes.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Local Trails = Happiness

The day was already getting off to an unexpected start.  I was supposed to be flying to Las Vegas to help teach a class, but the government shutdown meant canceling those plans (and the class).  Instead, I drove toward a trailhead, only to find freezing rain and icy roads.  Since the trail was quite a bit further away, I decided to punt and go to a closer one.

I pulled into the winter parking area only to find it full.  Some camo-clad guys with hunting dogs eyed me curiously but didn't offer to move their crookedly-parked truck.  I gave up and drove home.  The trails near my house would have to do.

Most of my life I've lived close enough to walk or run to trails in the woods.  Sometimes they were spectacular, right outside the door in national parks. Other trails were more modest, like the ones through the woodlots at the university I went to.  I don't know if I would have become a runner if there weren't trails near my childhood home.  At fourteen I ran in the woods with my sister and our friend Laura,  jumping over logs and shuffling through autumn leaves.  The roads just weren't the same.

The trails at the end of my street were created during logging years ago.  They aren't incredibly scenic, although if you climb a ridge you can see the mountains.  But you can run on them, or mountain bike, cross country ski or snowshoe.  They're on state trust lands, so people won't build houses there.  Occasionally the creek will flood parts of them, and some dog walkers don't see anything wrong with leaving poop in the middle of the path.  But if you live here, you don't need to drive anywhere.  You can put your snowshoes or skis on in your driveway and head out.  Deer live there, so maybe you'll see one. 

Sometimes you just want to disappear into the woods.  You don't want to make a plan, go to the gas station, or pack a lunch.  Local trails are the answer.  I hope to always live near one.

Monday, January 15, 2018

No Roots

Some of the people I work with were born here.  They went to school here, and if they left, they soon came back.  They can't imagine living anywhere else.  Their roots are deep in this place.

I don't know what that's like.  I've lived a lot of places, from Alaska to Hawaii and in between.  I've liked most of them, even loved some, but it was always easy to pack up and move on.  Back then you had to chase the jobs, so I got used to leaving.  My roots, like some trees', are shallow.

My friend B. was talking about where she wanted to move when her fire career was over.  She thinks Driggs, Idaho, would be nice.  But she doesn't know, either.  Maybe she will stay.

I like where I live well enough, although I wish some things were different (more sun in the winter would be nice, maybe a few less bears). 

Walking through the forest, you can't always tell which trees have deep roots and which have shallow ones.  They're all making the best of where their pine cone or acorn or seed landed, reaching up toward the sun.  Maybe that's the secret: it's not so much the place, but what you make of it.

This woman says it better than I can.  Sing it, Alice:

Monday, January 8, 2018

How to get a job on a fire crew

It's that time of year again.  Seasonal applicants are everywhere: on the phone, in email inboxes, and sometimes even appearing at offices, trying to do whatever they can to secure a summer position.  And why wouldn't they? It's a good way to pay for college, fund international travel, and maybe have some excitement.  However, some of them have no idea of how to go about it.  So for anyone who might be floundering, here are some tips.

Have a good application.  This might be surprising, but many people seem to have trouble with this.  They seem to have never heard of spell check.  They copy and paste from the official position description word-for-word.  They write so little that you wonder if they are in the witness protection program, or else they write a book that makes your eyes glaze over.  There are a lot of resources out there to help with resumes.  Use them!

Choose references carefully.  Some people would be really surprised with what their references say about them, for example, "we took the chainsaw away from her halfway through the summer and wouldn't let her use it anymore."  Also, if you put your dad or your brother, we probably won't take that seriously.  Former supervisor not going to give you a glowing reference? Be prepared to say how you've changed and learned from the experience.  Don't be the guy whose reference says, "Wow, I don't know why he put me down, I don't have anything good to say" (true story).

Very little fire experience? Not necessarily a deal breaker.  I always tell people I'm looking for someone who can get along with others, works hard, and has good initiative.  I can teach them the other stuff.  I can't teach someone how to be a nice guy or gal.  Experience working in the woods, running a chainsaw, growing up on a ranch? All good.

Call, but not too much.  On average I have 150 applicants for one position.  Calling can put a voice to a name, and I'll look for your application when I get my list.  Don't be a stalker, though! One guy called me at 8 am on a Sunday, and then called four more times.  Kind of creepy.  Email is even better.  Then I can answer all your questions, at a time that is convenient.  All these applicants ask for a call back, but that probably won't happen (note, 150 applicants).

Come by, but only if it works for your prospective supervisor.  One woman told the hotshot superintendent that she knew it was the weekend, but could he come into the office and show her around the base? No, no, just don't.  If you take the time to set up an appointment, we are happy to see your smiling face.

Be local.  If you already have a place to live, you're a hot commodity.  We don't have to worry about you bailing because you can't afford to live here, or miserably staying in your truck all summer.  If there's a local fire crew, think about applying there.

Don't be entitled.  Now is not the time to ask how much overtime you'll get, what your potential boss's qualifications are, be evasive when we ask if you've accepted another job (because you have and are playing the offers), or basically ask what the crew will do for you.  That will all come in time.  Besides, 150 applicants, remember?

Some of the best crewmembers I've hired had very little firefighting experience, but had glowing references, had worked hard at the ice cream parlor/family farm/logging crew.  They took the time to call and say how much they wanted the job.  They were enthusiastic and just happy to be considered.  Some of them have moved on to other things, but a few are still in fire, moving up into higher level positions.  I'm glad to say I gave them their start, and I'm so proud of them.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Firefighting: the aftermath

What do you do when it's over?

In my position, as with federal law enforcement jobs, you get the boot when you are 57.  Sure, you can try to go to another position, one not covered by our special retirement system, but those are increasingly hard to get.  Unless you've had the time and opportunity to work on other skills, there are people in those fields who will easily beat you out for any vacancy.

Fifty-seven seems like a long way off for young firefighters entering the system. "I'm going to retire as soon as I'm eligible," they often say.  If they got hired into a permanent job early, this can be younger than age 48. Fifty, tops, they declare.  It's easy to say, when the years seem long.

Some, the lucky retirees under the older, more favorable retirement system, or who have saved enough money, leave it all behind and happily go work in their wood shops, or ski on the weekdays.  They don't look back, and you rarely see them around.  They don't miss it: it's an important chapter of their lives, but only one chapter, and they are still writing the book.

Others can't quite let go.  They can't afford to, or can't bear to.  They sign up to fight fire as needed.  Some years, unfettered by office duties or subordinates, they make more money than regular employees.  They drift around the West, going from fire to fire.  You can tell the ones who really want to be there from the ones who think they have to be.  Some love fire; others just need to survive.

Some leave the fireline, but emerge in totally different areas.  They start a business, take a part time job, or begin a new career.  Sometimes they come around to the helibase or fire camp just to see what's going on.  They watch the hotshot buggies going down the road and the helicopters take off.  You can tell fire still has a hold on them.

I think when my time comes to leave, the hardest part will be letting go of who I used to be: the young woman, her waist-length hair in a French braid, hiking up a nameless burning mountain.  She has ash on her face and her fire pack is heavy, but she is laughing with her friends, looking forward to what comes next.

I don't know who the next woman I am is, the older one, the one who is no longer a firefighter.  She's waiting for me though, not too far down the road. I'll figure it out when I get there.