Wildland firefighting is a real adventure.
In a time where we can find the answer to anything on the internet and see the world from our iPhone, going out and fighting fire is primal and visceral. Being dirty for days on end in some of the most rugged and beautiful country will let you know what you are made of. It is not often can you get that experience in our modern world. The biggest gratification is that while fighting fire, you are helping people and their communities.
Every assignment had common elements: long hours, building a team out of strangers called “rookies, but not rookies,” and being pushed and pressured to go further and work harder. I found laughter and friendship and saw both the strengths and weaknesses in myself and those who I worked and lived with for weeks at a time. There were days that were mind numbingly dull and others where chaos was the rule and order. This work is a grind, sixteen hours of putting your head down and going to work.
A few days left a strong impressions – days where the smells, sounds, and views will always be clear. One morning in Alaska last July, there was darkness. This is the time of year where the sun does not really go down and it was dark from smoke. The small hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I made sure my gear was packed well and had a silent breakfast with the crew. Throughout that morning, the fire let us all know, it was in charge. In Northern California, I found that it is not what you can see, it is what you can smell and hear, that will let you know where a tricky fire is hiding, waiting for you to let your guard down. In central Washington, I remember a night of fighting fire, cutting hot line and moving fast. The fire had its own ideas and by morning a fire that was small and manageable would grow to over 1,100 acres. These memories are indelible.
Fire is the only element that we, as humans, have a chance at managing. You have to be smart and patient. I was reminded of this every day as I had the privilege to work with the women and men from the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service. Their experience and knowledge were powerful tools to fight fire. Their dedication to the safety and well-being of their fellow fire fighters creates a bond and a mentality of determination and savviness.
I learned this from my season of fighting fire in the Team Rubicon Wild Land Firefighting program: Work Hard, Earn Respect, and Build a Great Reputation! Do those things and you will find success. Fighting fire is tough, but in the end, it is an adventure that if embarked upon, will change who you are and give you strength to become better.