Monday, May 18, 2015

Maintain Control of Your Forces at All Times

Fighting Fire is difficult and stressful. It means hiking farther than you think you can hike. It means being a team player even when you're exhausted and in desperate need of some alone time. It means facing the flames and the heat while breathing smoke. It is emotionally as well as physically taxing. Yet, we push through all the stress to get the job done. We keep the standard firefighting orders on our minds. One of these orders is, "maintain control of your forces at all times."

In fire this means to lead by example, to give clear instructions, and to maintain situational awareness. It means earning and keeping the respect of your subordinates, conducting maintenance on your tools and equipment, and taking care of your crew members. It also means controlling your thoughts, emotions, and actions. It means being alert, keeping calm, thinking clearly, and acting decisively. As a firefighter these things are in some ways easy. We have trained and practiced for those stressful situations. We work hard because we want to do a good job, because we want to maintain our safety, and because we care about our crew members.

In our personal lives it's not so easy to maintain control of our forces at all times. I know that I lose my temper or I let my emotions cloud my vision. I've experienced a lot of emotional stress over the course of my very young life. The years I spent in college were very emotionally difficult for me as I learned new things about the world and about myself. The past year, however, has been more emotional stress than I have ever experienced. It has been at times debilitating both physically and mentally. I feel ashamed as I think about the moments where I let my feelings of loss, sadness, aloneness, and uncertainty determine my thoughts and my actions. I did not maintain control of my mental forces. I did not maintain my alertness or calmness. I did not think clearly nor act decisively. Indeed, some moments I simply lay passive and let life drive over me.

As I think about it now, I have in my mind those people whom I hurt--including myself--by not treating my "home life" the same as my "work life." I did not consider the big picture, maintain my situational awareness, nor think about the safety of my "crew"--the people whom I love and who support me--before all else.

Now, as I gear up for another fire season sure to be filled with physically and mentally challenging situations, I'm also gearing up for those moments in my personal life where I will face emotional and mental challenges. Just like in my fire training, it will take practice, and as I start out, I imagine I will fumble a little bit before I become proficient; still, I'm confident that as I keep practicing, it will get smoother and easier.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


Today a man came up to me in the coffee shop and asked about my t-shirt from one of the big wildfires.  He wanted to know if I was an actual firefighter and when I told him I was he thanked me for what I do.  I don't normally think of myself as deserving of thanks. I am not the kind of firefighter that gears up, throws the oxygen tank on her back, and runs into burning buildings to save babies.

I am the kind of firefighter who throws her pack on, grabs a tool and hikes with her eyes focused on the feet in front of her. I am the kind of firefighter who digs and scrapes and drags brush and tree limbs. When the fire burns loud and hot, I hike out and wait. Most of the time I forget that even though I'm not working in burning buildings, the reason I hike into the mountains and dig line and spray down flames is to protect lives and property. Maybe I'm a little more disconnected from this truth, but people like the man in the coffee shop today remind me of my purpose, and I am grateful to know that my work is appreciated.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Destined to be a Hotshot

A woman and her pulaski in Arizona.
Last summer I had intended to write regular blogs about my adventures on a hotshot crew.
I, of course, failed at doing so and have neglected this blog since my first day as a hotshot.

There are so many different things that I need and want to write about, and I've decided that I will do so by way of a non-fiction book. It will detail what it's like to be a wildland firefighter--all the physical requirements, the fears, the struggles, the fatigue, the badass-ness--as well as involve histories of fire in the U.S., reactions to the tragedy at Yarnell Hill, and my opinions on what we can do to change the way we treat fire in the future.

I have wanted to be a hotshot wildland firefighter since I was seventeen years old when I first learned about the Snake River hotshots who were assigned to the same fire I was a camp crew member for near Zion National Park. I remember seeing their neon BLM-yellow crew buggies in the parking lot one morning before they left camp to work on the fire. I caught glances of the tough firefighters in their dirty clothes going about their morning routine as they prepared for the long day ahead of them. One of my camp crew leaders explained to me that hotshots are the most elite firefighters. They are experienced and strong, and the most respected. (I have of course since learned that smoke jumpers and heli-rappellers are stronger and more respected, but even they were all once hotshots themselves.) At that moment when I first saw them and the words Snake River Hotshots in big black letters across the top of their buggies, I decided that I would one day become a hotshot. It wasn't one of those crazy dreams of being an astronaut or an NBA player or the president of the United States sorts of things. I knew that one day it would happen--that one day that would be me climbing in the back of the crew carrier, fighting the the fires, and returning to camp covered in black soot looking exhausted and much like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

Soon after that, I went through the training to become a Type 2 wildland firefighter and I worked on my first type 2 hand crew. Just being a firefighter was surreal and wonderful to me. As I progressed in the wildfire world into working on an engine crew and then in wildfire investigation, my goal of becoming a hotshot dwindled. I began to think that I wasn't cut out for that kind of work. I watched every now and then when the Bonneville Hotshots were at the BLM office in Salt Lake how they would do pull-ups in the back warehouse. All of them lined up and jumped up to the bar cranking out 10 pull-ups at a time, jumping down to get back in line, waiting to do it all over again. I didn't think I could do the kinds of work they did and so I became content with my half-field, half-office job of wildfire investigation.

At the end of the fire season, I applied for a dozen or more jobs, mostly hoping that I could work on an engine crew or a helitack crew, or most ideally, work as a wildfire investigator  closer to home (Ogden, Utah, where my lover and I lived at the time). I also applied for seasonal prescribed burning jobs in southeast U.S. for the winter, not wanting to be an un-employed ski bum like other fire seasonals I knew. Somehow in the mix of all these jobs I had mistakenly applied to a hotshot crew in Mississippi. I had an interview with the Assistant Superintendent, and a follow-up interview, and then I was offered a job. I didn't know what to do with myself it came as a surprise. But here was my chance to finally live out not just my dream, but what seemed to be my destiny of being a hotshot wildland firefighter.

I took the job and began my training.

Now, I'm preparing for my second season as a hotshot firefighter as I work with The Nature Conservancy on a prescribed burn crew.

I'm trying my damnedest to outline my non-fiction project, and perhaps put this blog to some use as I collect some thoughts and ideas.

Fire on!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Day 1 as a Hotshot Wildland Firefighter

For the first day on the hotshot crew we went through the physical requirement tests.
25 push-ups.
40 sit-ups.
7 pull-ups.
3 mile pack test with 45 lbs.

In some ways this year's pack test was the hardest one I've done. There were only old school weighted vests that had these huge pockets with lead plates in them. I tried to pick one of the smaller ones (I don't think any of them were smaller than any other), but I still ended up with a vest that looked like a dress on me. I waited until the very last second to put the vest on because 45lbs is a lot of weight when you're only 118 lbs yourself. Unfortunately, the buckles on my vest were all broken, so once we got started I had to hold the vest tight with my hands to keep it from flapping all over the place.

In other ways, I think this year I performed the best I ever had on the pack test (particularly when you consider how uncomfortable my vest was...). I finished at 41:17, and I only got one blister from the whole thing. I tend to get blisters every year from the pack test even though I haven't had blisters from anything else. Maybe it's just that speed walking makes my foot rub the wrong way in my shoe?

Overall, it was simple and easy. I finished my first day feeling strong, confident, and happy.

Fire Away!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

Every wildland firefighter and every forester or Forest Service employee should be familiar with the history created by Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. Every wildland firefighter should know who Ed Pulaski is and what he did during the catastrophic fires of 1910.

The Big Burn is a great way to become acquainted with all of these people and with the history of the wildfire fighting program as well as the roots of forestry in the United States. The Big Burn is about Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, the origins of the Forest Service and land conservation, and, of course, the great fires of 1910 (and in that order).

 I have a really hard time getting invested in history books. I'm a little ashamed of that fact, but I'm also proud to say that I finished The Big Burn and I enjoyed it. For someone who expected to read about wildfires, I was disappointed at the intense history and biography portions at the beginning of the book. It was hard to get into, but once I'd trudged through several chapters, I actually appreciated knowing a lot of the histories and biographies.

Since this will be my 6th season in wildland firefighting, I'm a little embarrassed that it's taken me this long to become familiar with the history of fighting fire in the United States. I knew that the pulaski tool was named after the guy that made it, but I never knew just what kind of man Ed Pulaski was nor the courage and leadership he displayed as he fought wildfires in Montana.

I definitely recommend this book to anyone looking to know more about the beginnings of wild land firefighting. The seemingly boring beginning is worth trudging through.

Know of any other fire books or outdoor/survival books you think I should read?

Fire Away!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Fire Season by Philip Connors Book Review

I just finished reading Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout. I've had this book for a couple seasons (a friend gave it to me for my birthday) and I finally got around to reading it.

I don't know why I waited so long, because the book was awesome. Phillip Connors does an excellent job at sharing bits of history in an interesting way while exploring the beauties of the seasonal solitary life of being a wilderness lookout.

One of the advance praise quotes on the back says, "I don't know what to call this soulful book. Memoir? Essay? History? And I don't know how it manages to turn months of solitude into such a gripping quest with vivid characters, including one of the Four Elements. What I do know is that Fire Season both evokes and honors the great hermit celebrants of nature, from Dillard to Kerouac to Thoreau--and I loved it." ---J.R. Moehringer

I have to agree with J.R. on this one. The book was very well done. I love non-fiction sort of self-exploration types of books. This book keeps an excellent pace and spends just the right amount of time on history and background of the setting and on Connors's personal adventures and reflections.

The only qualm I have with this book is the title...and that's only because I'm jealous that Connors took the title Fire Season before I could get to it and then used it for a wilderness lookout book that had not so much to do with wildfire as it did with hermitage. I had hoped there would be some big fire as the climax of the book, and was disappointed not to find it. Regardless, the book was well done, and it intrigued me enough to pique my interest in becoming a wilderness lookout one of these seasons.

If you like good writing and have any interest in the wilderness then I recommend this book.

Are there any awesome fire books that you think I should read?

Fire Away!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Z is for Zombie by the Cranberries

One of my favorite fire season songs  is Zombie by the Cranberries. It became a fire season song mostly because I happened to become obsessed with it during one of my first seasons, and it now reminds me of everything that comes with summer. Sitting around waiting for smoke reports, cleaning and greasing the leather boots, bouncing around on a dirt road toward the flame.


What's in your head?

Fire Away!