Sunday, July 3, 2011

Used to be

Of all the things I used to do, giving up fighting fire has been one of the hardest. This might seem strange, because wildfire fighting is scary, painful and often boring. You can have hours and hours and days and days of swinging a Pulaski through stubborn, root-bound soil to create a skinny fireline. You can spend hours and hours poking bare-handed through gently smoking soil to find hot spots. You can be gone from home for weeks. You can cough, afterward, for weeks. You can die.

But there were days, months, years, when I loved it, just me and a band of strangers turned friends, off somewhere on a mountain, spiked out with our Meals, Ready to Eat and our bladder bags that we filled up at far-away lakes for squirting water on the fire. We huddled around the ashes, our bond after twenty-one days as thick and tightly-woven as braided rope. We ran into each other again and again in pockets of the country: Yellowstone in 1988, Wyoming in 1989, Idaho and Florida in the nineties, Montana in 2000, Alaska in 2004.

When I was on a fire, I felt as though I knew something. I could put it all together: the wind, the terrain, and make a map of what would happen. I knew when we should dig a cup trench to prevent rolling material from igniting outside the line, and I knew when we should cash it in and call for water drops. I spoke the language of relative humidity, helicopter payloads and hose lays.

That was before everything changed, in myself and in the world of firefighting. It has mushroomed into an even bigger juggernaut, more and more professional crews so that us Call-When-Needed (or, more patronizingly, "The Militia") are not summoned or wanted, and are looked down upon as second-class, ill-trained, last resort. Gone are the days when a burly crew of rangers and trail crew dug hot line. With shrinking budgets, our bosses won't let us go anyway; they have targets to meet and their backgrounds aren't in firefighting anyway. A gap has widened between the ones who are paid to do it all summer and those who come when called.

I've changed too. I don't really want to spend my summers digging fireline. I want to hike and swim and be with people I love. With each summer drawing down I know time is limited and short, and I want to drink it all down before I get old. There is so much country and so little time. So much love and so little time.

So while everyone else is in Arizona, I am here. And though I have mostly made my peace with ending twenty-five years of some sort of firefighting, full time or part, I can't say there isn't some little twinge, some half-remembered spark. Remember when? And I do.


  1. Whenever there is a fire, and here, in CA we have plenty of them, I am always in awe of people who put their lives on the line to fight the blaze often in excruciating heat. It must be love or why would anyone want to do it.
    To you I can only say THANK YOU and THANK YOU again.

  2. Once again, I am in awe of your beautiful writing and how you capture both the physical experiences and the emotions so that your readers can "see" your life.


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