by Christine McDonald
Five in the morning is too early to call and nine at night is too late, so I haven’t spoken to my four year-old daughter in seven days. The crews are briefed and headed to their trucks and the finance section doesn’t open until 7:00 so I sneak into their trailer and leave the light off. I don’t think that I am breaking any rule, but I don’t want to draw attention either.
My voice, which 10 minutes earlier was strong and serious as I briefed on the day’s objectives, rises in pitch and takes on the sing-song quality of a kindergarten teacher. I laugh with tears stinging my eyes as she tells me about her special pancake breakfast and that she misses me and hopes I am safe.
My fifteen month-old son can’t talk yet, but I can hear the recognition in his squeal when I say hello.
Someone comes in and flicks on the light, giving me a curious look and I instantly adjust my tone.
“I should go”
The call was too short, but hopefully long enough to remind everyone at home that I love them. I find strength in recalling my daughter’s words to me on my last days off, when I tried to gauge her feelings about me going away again so soon: “If the fires are getting bigger, Mama, then you need to help.” I hope one day she will be as proud of me as I am of her kindness and strength.
I am working as an Operations Branch Director on one of the biggest fires in British Columbia in a year when every fire that starts seems determined to leave its mark on our “worst season ever.” We are all stretched thin, we are all worn out, we are all doing our best with what we’ve got. A sixteen hour day of planning, briefing, flying, trying, adjusting, working, meeting, doesn’t leave much room for missing the little people whose every wish is usually my command.
At night as I finally close my eyes in the quiet dark of my tent, my emotions catch up to me. There’s guilt at the fact that I am so far away, guilt that I haven’t thought about them all day, and guilt that I don’t feel guiltier about it all. And then there’s just the longing to hold my babies, to feel their warmth and smell their hair. I’m thankful that exhaustion puts me out of my misery within minutes.
I am a firefighter and a mother, but it’s harder to be both than it should be. Fire vs. family is my reality. The acceptance of women in fire has come a long way in the 18 years since I first picked up a Pulaski. I feel respected in my operational roles and never feel cheated of opportunities. It’s been at least 10 years since I’ve had my butt pinched.
But being a mother adds a whole new layer of complexity that no one seems quite sure how to accommodate. More often than not, the ‘problem’ takes care of itself when mothers choose not to return to the fireline after having a baby. But if we have accepted that women are capable and valued members of the fire community, is it not worthwhile to look for ways to support mothers in those critical few years when diapers and naps have to share space in our lives with drip torches and Nomex?
I’m not sure exactly what this accommodation should look like. There will, of course, be variations between agencies, individuals, and the positions that individuals fill within those agencies. I believe it is much less important to pinpoint a one-size-fits-all solution than to simply be flexible and open to new and different short-term arrangements, and to start by asking each new mother, “What will work for you?” Then, that flexibility needs to extend to allow the answer to that question to change over the course of a fire season or between fire seasons, so that the solution is not found in a single conversation but through an ongoing dialogue that lasts until our next generation of Pulaski-swingers is too cool to hang out with Mom all summer anyway.
With a willingness to start the conversation and an openness to trying out some unique work arrangements in the short term, I hope that more mothers might be able to love both fire and family.
Bio: Christine McDonald held various positions within the BC Wildfire Service until January 2017, after the birth of her second child. Uncertain about so much time away during fire seasons, she left the BCWS to pursue teaching high school. But she couldn’t stay away; she returned to the fireline during BC’s record-breaking 2017 fire season and is now hoping to find a new position within the organization.