One of the easiest ways to identify a wildland firefighter is by their walk. Hours spent trudging up steep slopes with heavy packs lends itself to a long, purposeful stride, and the indistinguishable rolled shoulders. It is hard to miss the shoulders, which over time, begin to creep forward and condense. The hips get tight, the quads start to cover the knees, and the hamstrings get a little bit thicker. The weight of the pack builds strong muscles in the back and legs, to the point where the body begins to conform the pack’s presence even when it is not there.
The walk of a wildland firefighter is defined by the ground they walk on and the things they carry.
Wildland firefighters are master walkers. They can steam uphill with an overabundance of gear and equipment, sometimes over and over again simply because. They can navigate across highly nuanced and dynamic terrain to find tiny spots of heat that can define their success or failure. They can use their sense of awareness to understand what their fire is doing even when they cannot see it. They do all of this with nothing but the few items they carry on their back, the tool they hold in their hands, and the boots they wear on their feet.
The pack they carry must be as hardy as they are, as it goes all the same places and endures the same abuse. Within it, are a few but necessary items that speak to who they are. Water, fusees, files, batteries, two Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs), a headlamp, a radio, an extra pair of gloves, extra ear protection, clear glasses, a handsaw, a saw kit with extra chains, a medical kit, a warm layer, a space blanket, flagging and fiber tape, a compass, and any other piece of gear that can determine their performance out on the fire line. Some choose to carry personal items, such as photographs of their partners, notes from their children, a trinket or charm for luck, or an FM radio to improve morale when things get dark. Strapped somewhere to the outside of their pack is the fire shelter, which serves as a constant reminder of the unpredictable and hazardous world that they enter every day.The tool they hold has its own cadence in the firefighters walk. It can swing from side to side, droop from one hand, or dig into the shoulder when burdened with the extra weight of a drip torch. For those who cheat, it can be used as a crutch when going up something gnarly. In the span of the walk, a firefighter’s tool holds its own space, waiting for the work that waits at the destination.
None of the walk is possible without the boots they wear on their feet. The same as the rifle is to the marine, the boots are to the wildland firefighter. They are the most critical piece of equipment, because without the boots, there is no walk. As a result, they receive the greatest amount of attention and care – oil, wax, lace, resole.
All of this effort just to maintain the sanctity of the walk.
But the ability of wildland firefighters to carry out their missions across rugged landscapes is the greatest tool we possess to fight wildfires. Those of us who are not there are often led to believe that success is dependent on steel, rotor blades, or red slurry; but the reality is far more human. Success in wildland firefighting is derived from the movement of leather boots and sinewy shoulders. Sweat is a far more important currency than oil when it comes to curbing a catastrophic wildfire. Although sometimes we forget that the combination of firefighter, pack, and tool are the critical resource to preventing loss and destruction.
The walk we are asking our firefighters to take is becoming a little bit longer every day. Over the course of a tough fire season, those days spent walking start to blend and the destination becomes a little less clear.