In August, you hear about fires—you stay privy to evacuation warnings and watch the news tirelessly for updates, and you stay inside when the inversion pushes smoke into the valley where you live.
You hope the fire doesn't affect the lands you love, the community you call home, or, God forbid, your home and family. You put your trust in us.
And yet, many don't really know what it is we do day in and day out. On many Hotshot crews—the one I was on included—ending up in a newspaper or on TV is grounds for buying the whole crew beers. It's not a punishment so much as a collective, cultural acknowledgment of the fact that we prefer our presence to be unseen, for our work to speak for itself. After all, the feeling of holding a steep line that took three 16-hour days to put in—well, we'll take that over getting on TV any day.
For six months a year, we commit every ounce of our beings to this work. When the season ends in October or November, we take a month or two off to rest and spend our fire money on toys and travel. Come winter, you can find us running, hiking, skiing, and lifting to prepare our bodies for another season. When April rolls around, despite our considerations of other vocations that aren't as hard on our knees and relationships, we come back to the station strong, rested, and broke—ready for another season of spending more time with our pulaskis and saws than with our children, friends, and partners.
What we do is simple, really. We hike, we dig line, we burnout, we sleep when we can, and we eat whatever ends up in front of us. We camp in fire camps or on ridgelines and occasionally stay up late to watch for shooting stars or to stare at the fire burning in the distance against a clear night sky. We rarely shower. We get an average of 16 days off from June to October, sometimes less. We call our kids and wives and boyfriends and parents when there is cell service and a minute to spare. We tell them we miss them, and we hear about the milestones and fun we've missed—the birthdays, weddings, and first steps, the epic river trips, fishing missions, and the whole array of summer shenanigans. We're bummed to be missing out, but we know we have a reason for being here, even if that reason isn't always abundantly clear.
This job can suck—that's part of its allure.
We understand that the things that stand out in a year won't be the copious time spent traveling or waiting for assignments—they'll be the nights we were awoken from our sleeping bags by a sudden hail storm, or all the mornings we put frozen leather boots on in 15-degree weather, or the shift that lasted seemingly forever, or the burnout we almost lost and sucked a whole lot of smoke trying to contain.
We often wonder—sometimes multiple times a day—why the hell we do this, and then we tie in three miles of line and can't wipe the shit-eating grin off of our faces.
And, for me, spending the last four years in public lands—in wilderness areas and river corridors and in damn near every kind of landscape one could find in the West—this has been one of the greatest privileges of my albeit relatively short life. I often think about life after fire, about the void that fire will undoubtedly leave. How many chances will I get to work my ass off in the woods with people who teach me about everything from investing for retirement to troubleshooting chainsaws, who hug me when I'm going through a fire season break up, who tell me when I'm not performing to the standards they expect of me, who challenge me every day to be a better version of myself? Where else will I find this sense of belonging? The humility of daily beatdowns—the pride of working through it even when every cell in my body is profoundly exhausted?
I don't know that answer, but I do know that I'm grateful to know fire and for the opportunities and growth it has provided, even in just a seasonal capacity. No matter where I end up, whether that's in a permanent position with the Forest Service or pursuing writing or in any number of other paths, I'll be thankful to know what it's like to work hard with good people in beautiful places—to know what it means to do work to be truly proud of.