You will even read that occasionally we are referred to as Firefighters; and that this only true when we die.
I realized my unique perspective on this job is an experience of serious injury, depression, stress, and loss of identity. My view shows that despite our love for the job, the immense commitment, pure dedication, and desire, you are left to look out for yourself when it's taken from you. We are left to face the harsh reality of reintegration into society and must let go of our cherished culture. It is an unforgiving profession that doesn't return the affection we so graciously offer. Dealing with a devastating and potentially career-ending injury is an experience that inherently changes someone. Being a good Hotshot requires a heavy emphasis on physical fitness and sustaining long hours, and intense physical labor. Early in the 2018 fire season, I awoke one morning in New Mexico with a sudden ache and sharp pain in my back and hip.
The rest played out in what would become the hardest thing I have ever had to do.
Of course, I must back up to completely illustrate this situation I found myself in after the fire season. Before I became a Forestry Technician, I played hockey for 13 years, finishing my Junior Hockey career at the age of 20. I had an extensive background in physical fitness and was more than prepared to handle injuries and take care of my body. For my profession as a Hotshot, I prepare heavily every winter, training a minimum of five days a week of Crossfit, cardio, and body maintenance to arrive for the season in peak physical condition. Yet, there is one trait that you cannot teach, prepare, or train for –toughness. Toughness is somewhat intangible and extremely valuable in our line of work, both physical and mental. It powers an individual to access the fortitude required to push through a grueling fire season and work countless hours with insufficient rest. Toughness is part of our culture.
After the initial injury, I assumed it was just another ache and pain we deal with daily, and it would work itself out. But as the summer of 2018 continued, the pain exacerbated, and every day of life was an inner motivational monologue to keep working. I would never let it show that I was losing my ability, but it was beginning to affect my attitude. Everything hurt; every fire assignment was excruciating. I questioned my own toughness at times – I was miserable. Engulfed by rage that my body had betrayed me and well beyond "I just need to get through the season." I couldn't tolerate the pain, but I couldn't endure the thought of losing this job even more. One of the few things in my life I am tremendously proud of was now being taken. Stress, depression, and anxiety are just a few words that coincide with how I felt every day on the line. I tried my best to accomplish what this job requires. Hard work, good decision making, proficiency with the technical aspects of fighting fire, doing whatever is needed when called upon, all while never showing a hint of vulnerability. As Hotshots, we fight fire in the most remote, steep, and technical ground on a fire; we do the work that doesn't receive recognition. I didn't tell anyone in fear that I would seem weak. September rolled around, and I had received pain medications to sleep at night, a round of steroids, an ER visit, and daily max doses of ibuprofen, and still had no relief. I eventually had to swallow my pride and inform my Superintendent that I could not continue working. That moment was powerfully deflating to my ego and burned into my memory, but I was barely able to walk or stand without agonizing pain.
The questions asked of me for this essay included what it was like during the summer dealing with an injury. I did my best to describe how truly hellish it was to be in constant agony every day. I tried to describe how I felt daily and the deteriorating state of my mental health.
As difficult as fire season was, the truth is what transpired the following 6 months after fire season that truly tested my mental, physical, and emotional capacity and where the real challenge began.
After a multitude of imaging, it was discovered I had a stress fracture in my spine that eventually caused my vertebrae to slip. Spondylolisthesis is the correct nomenclature. The effects can be widely varied, but mine were very distinct: Bulged disc and pinched nerve at L5-S1. The specialist I was referred to initially told me I wouldn't be able to continue life as a Hotshot anymore due to the nature of the injury. I was devastated. I have spent the majority of my adult life as a Firefighter – six months of commitment to physical fitness and training a year, all while balancing college, home life with my partner, and mental rehabilitation. The next six months (fire season) are dedicated to being on the road all summer fighting fires across the country and spending every waking minute living, breathing, and sharing hardships with my crew.
Throughout the offseason, the feeling of disconnect with the world around me swelled. I had been immersed in the culture of fire so heavily it wasn't just a part of me; it was everything to me. My sense of identity was lost.
I was lost and alone. Words can't express how devoted we are to this lifestyle.
When it's ripped away in an instant, you are just supposed to figure life out. I didn't even attempt a claim with OWCP. Good luck tracing a "lower back injury" to a specific event. I was on my own. That word toughness discussed earlier takes on a different meaning when one comes to a crux in life as prominent as what I faced.
My winter consisted of the reality that if I wanted this bad enough, I would have to work 10 times harder than everyone else to continue my career. It started with physical therapy. I balanced a full load of credits at OSU while going to physical therapy 2-3 times a week and supplementing my own time in the gym 3-4 more days. I have never been tested like I was in the winter of 2018-2019. Having to retrain my body to walk and simply bend over is demoralizing, to say the least. Some days, the most challenging task I faced was convincing myself to get out of bed. The motivation for coming back this season is an interesting question to ponder. One could infer the motivation is a career, needing to get back to my Forestry Technician position to continue to pay for school out of pocket and work a living wage. Yet, that would be disingenuous. I do not choose this profession for the money; we don't earn nearly enough wages to be an incentive. The real motivation for working so hard is the passion for what we do as Firefighters. I genuinely believe what we do is bigger than an individual, and bigger than just a fun summer job – it is a career I have chosen because I love spending my summers fighting fire and accepting assignments in the most difficult terrain.
Working absurdly long hours in extremely hazardous and severe environmental conditions for something other than myself. I appreciate every moment with a crew that, by the end of the summer, is more family than my own blood. I am proud of a small number of things about my life; wearing a hard hat that says "Hotshots" on the side is one of them.
I have attempted to speak for a community of individuals who share the same perspective on why we do this job. I have tried to be a voice for those who have faced similar circumstances that left them feeling alone and confused by what happens after fire. I believe wholeheartedly that we are not Forestry Technicians, and we deserve more than only receiving the title Firefighter when one of us dies. We are first responders who, without question, answer when called upon to protect communities, infrastructure, ecosystems, habitat, and life. We risk our own bodies and lives for many reasons and receive little in return in recognition, compensation, and pay.