Sunday, April 29, 2018

Idle hands

I walked onto a temporary helibase, looking for the crew.  It was drizzling and cold, and nobody was flying, so they hunkered in a wall tent.  As I entered, they looked up briefly from their phones and then returned to staring at their screens.

Firefighting is hard work, but there's occasional downtime.  Maybe you're waiting for a helicopter, for overhead to show up, or for a new assignment.  Maybe you haven't seen smoke for days, but are still out there, just in case.  While there's still plenty of areas without cell phone coverage, it's becoming more rare.  What did we do before we had these devices to stare at?

Everyone carried a book in his or her line gear, despite the weight, and traded them when finished.  One of the smokejumpers toted a small NOAA weather radio and would listen intently to the forecast.  When a Game Boy made an appearance in Tammy's pack in 1992, everyone was fascinated and had to borrow it to play Tetris.  Lively food bartering went on.  Whittling and hacky sack were common.

"Moose Horn Lounge," tripod for coffee, and people making things out of parachute cord
We made furniture for camp: elaborate couches and chairs, wash basins, and pullup bars.  We had lively discussions about anything and everything.  Any stray magazine got read from cover to cover.  Russ found a bike at an airstrip and loved to ride it, so we decorated it with pink flagging. 
Russ and his beloved bike
We also took naps whenever possible, the ultimate solution to boredom.  If there was a break in the action, someone could usually be found snoozing.  Although the work/rest guidelines hadn't yet been developed, and we often worked 36 hour shifts or more, we actually probably got more sleep back then, undistracted by glowing screens.
Note the amazing couch.
There's a lot of advantages to our devices: accurate mapping apps, communication with people back home, something to occupy rookies' time instead of the inevitable and hazardous Pulaski throwing contests that used to occur.  But despite being an introvert, sometimes I miss the days when we would sit on a hillside, eating lunch and talking with each other.  If we liked each other enough when the fire season ended, we would exchange addresses and write letters throughout the winter.

Those days are gone, and it's almost time for me to hang up my boots as well.  The new people I hire now grew up with technology, so they don't miss the old days when we didn't sit in individual bubbles looking at our phones.  But I remember, and sometimes I really miss it.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

CSI: Laundry

Since my Laundromat days are far behind me, I don't mind doing laundry.  It kind of appeals to my sense of order.  And because I rarely use the dryer, but hang things on a drying rack instead, it gives me a chance to contemplate what my week was like.

Some examples:

A preponderance of leggings/shorts and tank tops: I spent a lot of time at the gym.  It must have been pretty icy or snowy, or there would be more running tights and jackets mixed in. 

Hiking pants or shorts/zip fleece or wool shirts:  I was outdoors a lot, on trails.  I had some time off, and the weather was good.  Chances are I made some new friends and hiked with them, or met up with old ones.  It's not very busy at work.

Lots of t-shirts:  It's been busy at work with fires, or I just came back from an assignment.  Long sleeved Ts mean it's cold, but the fire is still hanging on and must be dealt with.  If my laundry is filled with these shirts, I'm making money but not having many days off.

Nicer clothes:  A work trip, training or meetings.  I probably had to use the hotel gym, so there won't be any outdoor workout wear.  These clothes could also mean events with friends, but not as likely, because my friends and I tend to hike and do outdoors things together.

Yoga pants/hoodies:  It's been cold and I've been hunkered down at home (especially if cat fur is in evidence).  Some hermit tendencies might be emerging.

I recently washed my snowboarding clothes and put them away for the summer.  The ski area closed at the beginning of April; they have a lease from the Forest Service and must close at the same time every year to give the grizzly bears some peace and quiet.  There's still plenty of snow, and diehards are skinning up the mountain and skiing down still.  Not me; it's time to move on.

The best weeks have a mix of all kinds of clothes: hiking, running, gym, visits with friends, and some alone time.  It was almost 60 degrees today, so it's time to dig out the tank tops and summer dresses (I think. You never know, in a mountain town).  What does the future hold? Hiking, biking, trail running?  The laundry will tell the tale.

What's in your laundry basket? Does it represent what you've been up to?

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Fire years

"There aren't fire seasons anymore; there's fire years," someone at work says.

This is true.  There used to be no need for most firefighters, unless they were supervisors, to work year round.  While some forests, refuges, and parks in the south have always had seasonal fire crews in the winter time, they often were used mostly for prescribed fire and small brush fires.  Now we are seeing large fires every month of the year, and in many unexpected places.

My employees have been out on assignment every month of the year.  Currently one of them is in Oklahoma, where fires have recently evacuated towns and burned homes.  There have been fires in Colorado already.  I even heard of one in Alaska about a month ago.  If I had been able to leave my work behind, I could have been gone all winter.  There's too much to do, though; too much paperwork, too much preparedness.

It's been a snowy winter here where I live.  There is still two feet of snow at the helibase, and there was a winter storm warning last week.  People are worried about flooding.  Still, the weather service is predicting an above normal fire season here.

Winter used to be the quiet time for most of us.  That's changing.  You may not hear about it, but every month of the year there is a fire somewhere, and firefighters on the line, trying to stop it.

Fire in Oklahoma.  Courtesy CBS News.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

How to keep up with 21 year olds*

*when you're definitely not one

The fireline doesn't care how old you are.  Unless you are the boss, in which case you may be able to drive around in a truck or post up at a high point as lookout for your crew, you are expected to carry the same amount and do the same work whether you are 18 or 50.  Going through helicopter rappel training at 60 (I knew someone who did, the amazing Geo) doesn't make you exempt from the 100 pound packouts.

Yet, every season the rookies seem younger.  I had one last year who was born in 1996, for heaven's sake.  With some exceptions, it is possible to keep up with these young pups though.  Here's what I've learned from years of seeing them come and go.

--Don't take long breaks from training.  Young folks can take weeks or even a month off and bounce back pretty quickly.  Sadly, this gets a lot harder the older you get.  It's better to just stay the course and keep working out. 

--Train smarter, not harder.  I've known plenty of young guys who will charge out of the gate, seemingly having only two speeds, on and off.  Eventually they will hit the wall, while you cruise serenely by.  Knowing how to pace yourself and how your body reacts to training is important.

--Want it more.  My friends and I regularly reel in millennials on hiking trails and pass them.  Part of this is due to the fact that we are in good shape and not all younger people are these days.  But determination goes a long way too.

--Eat some green stuff.  I know 20-somethings who seem fueled by energy drinks, sugar, and cigarettes, yet can run 6 minute miles easily.  This stops working as well as the years go by.

--Don't ignore random aches and pains.  While in our younger years we could walk it off, at this point it's best to pay attention.  Your body is trying to tell you something.  If you ignore it, you could wind up with a chronic injury.  Cross train, stretch, drink water, use a foam roller...whatever works for you, and see a professional if necessary.

And there is always another solution:

--Use treachery.  If you design the workout, the other people doing it won't know how long/how far/how difficult it is.  They may then slow down/complain/feel tired earlier.  On one crew, we would hide a vehicle in a small canyon a few miles down a sun-baked road through the high desert.  We would then tell the crewmembers they had to run until they got to the truck.  We then ran merrily along, knowing it was only about four miles, while the newbies, not seeing any sign of a vehicle, struggled along in growing despair.  This technique is very effective!

Granted, there are always outliers, and sayings like "age is just a number" are sometimes wishful thinking.  When I was 21 I could run every day on pavement without anything hurting and win races without trying all that hard.  But these days there are plenty of 40 and 50 year old firefighters out there hiking up hills, carrying heavy packs, and showing everyone how it's done.  These are my people! I'll see you out there.

Sunday, April 1, 2018


You know those times when you look out the window and the weather looks amazing, but when you go outside it's actually really cold?

This happens to me all the time! I'll look outside, think it looks really warm, so I'll go out to run in a T-shirt and shorts.  Then once I'm outside, I realize it's much chillier than I thought, or there's a previously undetected wind.  But I'm already out there, and it's too much trouble to go back, so I shiver through the first mile until I warm up.

I discovered there's actually a word for this phenomenon!  It's Gluggave├░ur, an Icelandic word that means "window-weather," the kind of weather that is nice to look at, but not experience.

Why don't we have this word (besides not being able to pronounce it)?  I could see its usefulness in many situations:

"I didn't run very far today, but it was because of the window-weather."

"It looked so nice out during the meeting and I wished I had gone skiing instead, but I was relieved to see it was just window-weather."

"You better pack more layers for the hike today.  Don't be fooled by the window-weather."

As if there weren't enough reasons to love Iceland already!