What would you tell your 18-year-old self?
At 18 years old, I had just left a life of train-hopping and galivanting around the west. Somehow I had managed to talk someone in to giving me a job as a back-country guide in Yosemite and spent my days running around the peaks and valleys of that bustling park. Looking back on that time, I would tell myself to stick to the mountains; to release that hopeless romanticism that always pulled me away from those remote peaks
Mountain pain is way more tolerable than heartbreak.
What is a 1039 Forestry Technician?
A paid slave is honestly, the first term that comes to mind when I hear "1039 employee." Forestry technicians are some of the most versatile and adaptable people on the planet. We work for as long as needed, without question, and always do the best job possible (with or without training on the task). 1039 employees are children and mothers, fathers, and brothers. We are musicians and sawyers, cooks and comedians, we are fence-menders and fishermen, we are pyromaniacs and friends. We are intelligent and curious, obedient and rebellious, brave and strong. There are so many adjectives that can be used to describe these people and none of which are found under the position description on OPM.gov.
What does a calendar year look like as a temporary, seasonal employee in fire?
A calendar year for a temporary, seasonal employee is often full of travel and poverty. The pinnacle of the year for me is usually somewhere in August. We have made it past Hell Month, when all crewmembers are sizing each other up: running, hiking, cutting, and sharpening better, faster, and stronger than the person next to them—or trying damn hard to. August is after the period of time where we've come to realize that all of the mental mind games and physical tests have passed and in that time we've become friends, brothers, and sisters with these strangers. August is after we have caught the first few stumbles on Initial Attacks and short rolls. August is when we find the rhythm that will carry us through the rest of the season. We are sucking smoke and sharing Jerry can hikes; we're felling and swamping and chaining.
The rest of the season we're just pushing hard through ‘til the end. When the holidays come, our seasonal pockets are well-lined and so we get to see family and buy gifts and drinks and be barefoot. There are moments of realizing we can never explain to our ‘real' family what we do with our fire family. There is no way to explain why we laughed so hard or why one hike made such a difference. So, we just laugh it off and show pictures and try to talk about anything other than fire for a bit. For myself, I return to school. I juggle tropical travel and snowy ski sessions with study cram sessions. Tears of stress over exams juggled with beads of sweat on runs or winter gym workouts.
In the deep of winter is when the training begins. I have a strict diet and workout regimen. All of us begin to reconnect and hike together or just hike alone. We begin to push it in the gym, throwing big weight, and building, building, building to that pinnacle. Or at least to the first nervous day on the new crew or with your old crew, where we size each other up all over again and move back into Hell Month.
What does it take to make it on an IHC/What does it take to be a firefighter?
On the first day of academy in my rookie year, a long-legged and long-whiskered man walked into the gymnasium that held our introductory briefing. We weren't allowed to wear our fire boots, so the heels of his dress shoe clicked loudly. His walk brisk, his demeanor smooth and subtly proud; distinguished. He quietly came to stand in front of us, all couple hundred wide-eyed, jittery bodies hushed and stared. He scanned the room and said,
"I am a student of fire. Good morning."
I haven't forgotten that Battalion Chief's booming voice, nor the words of Paul Gleason. I immediately felt kindred to the saying but had no way to know how profound this principle was. Of course, as a rookie, I was a student, absorbing everything around me: from the words of the academy cadre to the pictures on slideshows, from the way the second and third-year firefighters wore their Nomex to the vernacular used in sand table exercises. I learned from every available resource. What I didn't learn until later, until after I'd be scared on the line, after I'd been proud of myself, and long after I traveled from state-to-state chasing fire camp snacks and big columns, is that I will never not be a student.
What makes a good firefighter is that we are constantly learning and adapting. Some crusty, old Fire Management Officer once told me that the day we stop learning, is the day we should retire. What makes a great hotshot, a great captain, a great squaddie—what makes a great firefighter—is our ability to learn from everything around us.
Our qualifications are only the shiny bits shown outwardly, our experience is the foundation.
My first captain encouraged us to speak up (when appropriate) because our eyes may catch things that he is complacent to. This aided him in seeing more than just his two eyes could scan but it allowed our understanding to grow immensely. The ability to learn and grow flows both ways up the chain.
In tandem with the intention of being a student is the acceptance of vulnerability and humility. As far as I have seen from great leaders (and even better crewmembers), the best are unafraid to ask when they do not know or understand, and they are unashamed to admit fault or inexperience. It is at these very moments of confession where learning happens, where trust is built, and where problems are solved. Firefighters are problem solvers, hotshots may be the fastest but without vulnerability we are all walking mannequins dressed in sweaty, dirty PPE.
What does it take? Just everything you got. All it takes is everything you got.
It is often easier to just be faster or stronger, but it takes everything you have to admit you don't know, that you need to ask. But that is where we tap into the minds of all 20 crewmembers. That is when we learn from our superintendent. It's when we learn from each other. It's when we come to teach and to learn, regardless of the command structure and in the heat of the moment.
How much time and energy does it take to be physically and mentally prepared for fire season as a temporary or permanent employee?
This is one of the least discussed topics in fire and yet, perhaps the most important. To be mentally and physically prepared for fire season takes all year. One can certainly, jump into fire and make it through (flash back to many of our rookie seasons!). But most of the normal world cannot swing that.
We can react and adapt throughout the season, but to be successful, we need the whole year. We need to have conversations with our loved ones, so we have a support group and an understanding. We need train hard, intelligently upkeep, and diligently repair in the off-season.
The final piece: the Joy Quota (it cannot be measured but we can't succeed without it). Take time off for your son's birthday. Don't extend at the end of the season (go to Tulum!). Say no to going out on R&R. Whatever it looks like for you, buy into your joy.
For seasonals, its often not the typical path. We don't go to college right away, we don't buy a house, we don't get married (at least not in the traditional pathway). Our life is tumultuous and we see things most couldn't even dream of. We have triumphs and losses greater than most, as well. The price is, we give up sleep, routine, and relationships for our careers. So, it is crucial to find the joy and pay into it. Play your music loud, call your mom, climb the peak, sleep in, TAKE SOME ANNUAL LEAVE! Define your joy and pay into it, so that we can make withdrawals from it all fire season long.
What do you love about the job?Truly, I love almost every aspect of this job. I've been told repeatedly, and in multiple regions, that my hope will wear off. I have been told that I too will become jaded like the rest of the permanent employees.
But my allegiance lies with the earth.
As naïve as that may sound, as long as I am working to help the land, I will be happy. Fire ecology has a major role in land management. It is an invaluable tool to combat climate change as it steamrolls us.
But further, I love the friendships. I love the laughs that make you cry as you sit like a hobo eating tuna with black hands. I love the quality of the air at the top of the hike; silent aside from heavy pants attempting to be hidden, the shuffle of boots and tools colliding, the adjustment of saws on shoulders. I love the lakes and sections of rivers we find with no trails to them. I love the lyrics that find their way to the top of our lungs in the buggy or the songs that become themes for us. I love the heckling. I love the camaraderie. I love the intensity. And I love how the two constantly trade each other.
What's it like to deal with an injury during a fire season?
I was injured this season; tore a ligament in my foot. I did what most of us do and pretended I wasn't injured. I fought the pain for just over a month before one of my squad members told the captain. They had seen me limp through hikes and in and out of fires and finally it was time to check it out. Obviously, the verdict for a firefighter with a torn ligament is not good. I was put on light duty immediately.
The feeling of hopelessness and shame is swift. It feels like you lose your identity. The feeling of separation from your crew is painful. Something that helped me, was fellow crewmembers reaching out to me to check in. That made me feel not so forgotten.
The Labor and Industries/Department of Labor/Workers Compensation process is a shame. It is convoluted. The doctors that we are sent to don't always, or often, have the services we need. The case managers for the agency side of things are vastly overwhelmed with heavy case loads that even the best cannot manage. It means that the burden of all clerical work now falls on the forestry technician, we must become experts in the medical insurance field. The repercussion for failing to do so means that your medical bills come to your personal mailbox rather than the agency. We need to overhaul this system; it will take more people to untangle the mess.
The additional challenge is that our districts often do not have another job for anyone on light-duty. They have nothing for us to do. My captain told me to sit in the office. A type-A, athlete in her 20's, and a straight-A student was told to "Sit." It's impractical and leads to further decline in the mental health of anyone injured in fire. I was incredibly lucky to have a Battalion Chief that put my fuels management skills to use for a management fire at the regional level, yet two other guys weren't so lucky. One of the crewmembers on another crew sharpened tools and swept for weeks while his crew came and went. It is purgatory. We need to have these conversations before injuries happen. Forestry technicians need to be educated on their resources, who to call, and what the process is. Captains need to encourage the crew to stay as connected as possible. The chiefs need to have a plan for where to place anyone on light or restricted duty.
What is the biggest challenge that you face as a female in fire?
This is a tricky question. It has multiple layers and requires honesty about how even women see ourselves and treat one another. During the spring of 2020, I conducted research in the form of networking, surveys, and dozens of interviews with women (and men) in fire. The intent of my research was to understand the hardships that women in fire face. My hypothesis was that women do face disproportionate adversity in the fire community including promotions, proper protective equipment, and fair evaluations. I genuinely hoped to find I was wrong as admittedly, I have been fortunate to not feel overwhelmingly disadvantaged.
The results included countless stories of women not receiving proper sized footwear or Nomex, and to acquire the correct sizes they pay out of pocket for tailoring and custom boots –it is important to include that up until this season the agency boot stipend never covered quality boots for any size or gender. Oversized PPE leads to trips and injuries at an even higher rate.
The most alarming aspect for me was a trend that we see in the military as well. The evaluations of women compared to men are stark. A woman, successful physically and intellectually, will often receive no additional promotion, praise, or bonus compared to a man of equal stature. Upon evaluation, typically 2-3 times a year, the verbiage used for a woman is often vague and disconnected to the position. In addition, firm leadership or direct confrontation is often regarded "too bossy" or "too aggressive" whereas the same feedback from a man is received as proper leadership. Personally, I found myself giving women the same internal judgement and since this research have had to realign my assessments. Further it has pushed me to have more conversations with the people I lead and my supervisors.
I do not wish to conform or appease. My goal is to do the job well and safely and provide training and leadership.
However, my success is based on the evaluation of my supervisors and thus, I inquire and pry into all my appraisals.
Of my personal experience, I have experienced predatory behavior from a supervisor. It led to an investigation and the ultimate firing of that individual. It was frustrating and felt like somehow it was my fault and a setback for me, even as the victim in the situation. I have learned a lot from it and am thankful in the long run for it. I was rewarded with a medal from my crew for speaking truth to power and do not regret it. Recently, I have found similar struggles to the issues addressed by my peers above, yet I am inclined to think it was more an issue with a weak leader and less to my being a woman. Personally, I believe the biggest challenge women in fire face is believing years of discrimination. We are not only equal, we are a unique asset on the fireline. We bring efficiency to tactics, a courtesy to communication, and a perfectionism that is unmatched. Because we have faced over 200 years in the fire community believing we didn't belong, we now critically analyze every action. Our mistakes are two-fold that of our male counterparts and so we avoid them at all costs. Our actions are precise, our words concise, our decisions intensely critiqued before delivered. We know that we represent few and so our honor lies in our every action.
Our biggest challenge is not supporting each other and recognizing our strength. When we stop doubting ourselves so will our crewmembers.
I say this with strength and skills taught to me from strong, smart men. I feel empowered from men by my side who have been my brothers and teachers. I have been fortunate to not feel disadvantaged but that does not mean it doesn't happen. I will include my paper for your consideration as well. I felt blessed to receive an overwhelming response. The final line from my thesis: "We are not enemies, we fight the same battle, we are brothers and sisters in fire."