I wanted to be a wildland firefighter for some years before I was hired by the Forest Service last year. I studied engineering at UW-Madison for a year before realizing that I would rather spend time navigating forest roads than office cubicles. After dropping out of college I got an AmeriCorps job that landed me in the Great Dismal Swamp NWR as a wildland firefighter. I was red carded, had fire boots, and saw no fire at all. I was a wildland firefighter only if I was trying to impress women. After that I went on a firefighting hiatus that lasted for several years while I worked for different conservation corps and eventually earned a degree in Renewable Energy & Ecological Design. While I enjoyed what I studied, I still wanted to chase my dream of being a firefighter. I applied for a mess of fire jobs all over the country and landed one in the fictional state of Jefferson (which unites Northern California and Southern Oregon into a strange & delightful mix of hippies, rednecks and retirees). Did this make me a firefighter? Whatever the answer was, it sure sounded good telling folks at the pub that I was going to fight fire out West after I graduated. The question, though, of whether or not I was a “real” firefighter stuck with me all season, and I’ll attempt a meditation of sorts on it.
Culture shock was in order when I arrived at the ranger station the day after graduating college. I had expected some sort of cross between a Zen monastery and Track team filled with enlightened co-workers. Instead, I settled into a crew of ex-cons, ex-gang members, ex-military, and ex-pot growers – a more diverse cross section of America than I had ever considered. Living and working with this group forced me to reset my own ethical compass – drinking lite beer does not automatically invalidate an opinion. Many were seasoned firefighters, and even though I had a valid red card for the first time in years there was no way that I was a firefighter compared to them.
I few weeks after arriving at the ranger station we got our first fire. It was started by a farmer whose tractor caught a field on fire which spread to state land. Oregon Department of Forests had ringed the fire with a dozer line by the time we arrived, and we spent the night sifting through the poison oak mopping up hot spots. The crew was released next morning, and we spent the rest of the day catching up on lost sleep. I discovered that I was very, very allergic to poison oak as blisters spread over my arms and legs. If suffering made me a firefighter I should have been given the salary of a District Ranger, but I don’t think that it’s quite that simple. Having hands that look like elephantitis doesn’t make me a firefighter, it just means that I’m allergic to p-oak.
The season started to pick up after that first fire. We went on a mop roll to the Modoc NF in Northern CA. My first time in a fire camp. After that we picked up a few small lightning strikes on forest. Then the crew went to northern Oregon to work a lightning bust on the Deschutes NF. I was a mopshot, and while I was skilled at digging out hot chunks of dirt (and even spun weather) I was still not a firefighter.
Then we got busy – our district was pounded with lightning and we sprang into full-fledged IA mode. A fire camp was set up a few miles away from the ranger station and we spent the month of July fighting fire on our home district. I learned a lot during these weeks, and started to saw full time for the crew. Still, though, I spent most of my time digging bits of hot dirt out of the ground, and occasionally helped to ring a 1/10th acre lightning strike with fire line.
At this point on the season I had no idea of whether or not I was even in the right profession. Firefighting is the ultimate Catch-22. Wildfires are suppressed because excessive fuel loading and urban sprawl makes it dangerous to let them burn. There is an excess of fuel in the forests because wildfires are suppressed. Witnessing this conundrum made me question the value of the work that we did as a crew (and as fire organizations). The amount of prescribed burning and fuels reduction work that we do to fix the systemic problem of fuel loading is wildly inadequate in light of the problem.
One bright August morning my crew was whisked away by helicopter to a wilderness fire. The decision had been made early to let the 790 Fire burn for fire use purposes because it was in the wilderness. Some weeks later it was decided from on high to switch to a full suppression strategy. Our exceptionally remote corner of SW Oregon suddenly became the most intense area of fire activity in the country.
The crew worked 16 hour days to hold our division of the fire. We cut line, attempted a burnout that became a 40 acre slopover, and spent the rest of the day desperately trying to contain it. I sawed burning limbs out of green trees, and spent an exhilarating evening burning out a quarter mile swath off of the Pacific Crest Trail to stop the advance of the fire. Regardless of my status as a bona fide firefighter I was paid to hike the PCT for miles and eat steaks helicoptered in. It’s hard to argue with this line of employment as a 20-something.
Reflecting on last fire season stirs up a whole mess of emotions. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done to protect Federal, State, and private lands. On the other hand, it seems that we’re used as a stopgap measure to continue poor fire management policies like urban sprawl and excessive fuel loading. It’s a thorny enough political issue that policy is slow to catch up with the reality on the ground. Regardless of the ethical quandaries associated with fire suppression it was a good experience (and with climate change there is excellent job security!). Even when the policy issues are fixed, firefighters will still be needed. Wherever I end up next year, I look forward to another season as a firefighter.