To younger, 18-year-old me, my current 29-year-old self might seem like an absolute stranger.
He is seemingly confident, well-traveled, has friends all over the world, and is successful and happy. He also has much longer hair, which younger me would probably think is cool. Eighteen-year-old me would only have just been accepted by the University of Delaware into their Environmental Engineering program with the goal being to live a comfortable, successful, ‘status-quo-esque’ life.
Twenty-nine-year-old me on the other hand, would have since tried and left the engineering field (twice), lived as a ski bum in New England, fought wildfires all over the United States, met and formed amazing friendships with unforgettable people, obtained his EMT license in a unique outdoor setting, with all of it culminating to the pursuit of medical school 11 years later. If these two people could meet now, the way that I see them—as a proud older brother protective of his timid younger brother—the conversation might start out forced but would eventually flow just as easily as two childhood friends reunited after years spent apart. Here is the question: What would we talk about? And would I try to steer him down the path that I have taken? Before I give any unsolicited advice to this poor kid, I should at least tell him what he might be doing in the next decade.
I grew up on the east coast of the United States in rural Delaware doing what every small-town kid does in America, complain that there was nothing to do. Going back and visiting in adulthood however, I can see the appeal that drew my parents there. Delaware has a little bit of everything, from lively beach towns with bustling boardwalks to quaint countrysides with thriving Amish communities; it has its charm. I graduated from a small Catholic high school and went on to study at the University of Delaware from 2011 to 2015 obtaining an Environmental Engineering degree. I then began working in the corporate world as a Civil Engineer in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It was during this time that I started to realize this may not be the right path for me, obsessing over the notion that there had to be more to life than just being stressed out in a cubicle. I eventually left this promising career, moved to New Hampshire to be closer to my girlfriend at the time and her family. I took whatever work I could get, which turned out to be a lift operator position at a small ski resort in the White Mountains.
Going from making decent money as a recent engineering graduate to bumping chairs at a little no-name resort was borderline insanity in the eyes of my friends and family.
Little did I know, this ‘insane’ move was the first step down a path that would make me who I am today.
The people that I worked with at the ski resort were unlike any I had met before. My little bubble I had lived in up until then was slowly growing bigger. My co-workers were rough, and real, and somewhat difficult to relate to as a privileged, young, college-educated guy. The resort also had a work-abroad program that brought in a large group of young Peruvian students, and being a team lead in the lift operations department, there were language and cultural barriers that I had to learn to overcome. I was thrown into the deep end, gaining so many real-life, practical skills, and I absolutely loved it.
The camaraderie of working hard, shoveling snow, interacting with guests, and keeping the morale up with your foreign co-workers, all while being outdoors in the bitter cold, was character building. I slowly started to be recognized around the resort, and was soon recruited by the intimidating but hilarious, snow-mobile riding lift maintenance department to help with the lifts that following summer. I was hesitant to join, as I told myself that working in the ski industry would only be short-term, but I agreed. Those greasy mechanics pushed the limits of my bubble and forced me to learn to roll with the punches. As someone with a fear of heights, being paid to climb and maintain ski towers is a great way to get out of your comfort zone. I look back on those days fondly. One of my supervisors in the maintenance shop, who later became what I would call my first mentor, would eventually be responsible for introducing me to wildland firefighting. His name was Wallace Weaver.
Wally took a liking to me during my time on the maintenance team, perhaps because I reminded him of himself when he was younger. He was the type of guy that could build or rebuild anything; a genuine jack-of-all-trades. From welding and woodworking, to chasing electrical faults on a ski lift and rebuilding a diesel engine, he seemingly could do it all. His mind operated differently than most peoples’ and it was truly impressive to watch him dive headfirst into a mess of a project and emerge successful. I am still convinced he single-handedly kept that ski resort in business. One day, we were tasked with clearing trees around a carpet style lift on the bunny hill. At this point I had never even held a chainsaw let alone felled a tree, so I was blown away to watch this man pick one up without any hesitation and start clearing away a mess of hung-up trees with the speed of a career hotshot. Of course, he was good at this too! Asking him how he learned to do that, he explained that he had been a wildland firefighter in the 80’s, became the first “C” Sawyer in New Hampshire, and had traveled all over the country fighting fire. I was stunned and impressed to say the least. That life sounded adventurous and fun and exciting, and also unattainable and reckless to a shy, quiet kid living on the east coast, who had never even cut firewood, let alone dug handline. However, once Wally started showing me grainy point-and-shoot photos of him with a chainsaw on his shoulder standing in front of trees as wide as I am tall—that were engulfed in flames—I was hooked.
After some time at the ski resort, I felt I was doing myself a disservice by not using my engineering degree, so in 2018 I resigned and moved to the coast of New Hampshire starting, again, as a Civil Engineer with a small firm on the boardwalk. For the first few months, life was manageable, however that feeling did not last long. The stress started building at my new job, I was struggling to find a community in a new town, my long-term girlfriend and I were in the middle of separating while still living under the same roof; all of which added fuel to the fire of justifying moving out west. Every free moment I had was spent researching wildfire, watching videos, applying to every open forestry technician job posted, taking any online “S” class I could find (I’m pretty sure I took the crew boss course), and calling every ranger station that posted their phone number online. I was honestly not expecting anything to come from seemingly throwing my resume into the void, but in February of 2019 I received my first wildland fire job offer on a Type 2 IA handcrew in eastern Oregon. I jumped at the opportunity, accepting immediately.
This single phone call would change the trajectory of my life forever.
When the time came, I cut ties with the east coast, packed my belongings into my car, drove further west than I had ever been before, saw every national park along the way, and made more memories in two weeks than I had in years. Everything was aligning in my life and I was beyond excited to see what would be in store for me.
Thus starts my time as a wildland firefighter. From 2019 to 2022, I bounced around from state to state working on a Type 2 IA handcrew in Oregon, a Fuels/IA module in Colorado and then ended up on a Helitack crew in Idaho, where I stayed the longest. I worked my way through all of the basic taskbooks including Firefighter Type 1, Helicopter Crewmember, and Intermediate Faller. The experiences gained and the memories I made along the way are innumerable. One memory that stands out, in particular, was my first ever fire assignment on the Chalkyitsik Complex in Chalkyitsik, Alaska, a remote native community northeast of Fairbanks. We truly had the full Alaskan firefighting experience while on this assignment. Not only did the crew get to build a fully functional remote camp to operate out of for 14 days, but we were flown into the bush to do so. At the time it felt unsupported, but looking back with more knowledge of how fire management works, there was plenty of behind-the-scenes logistics happening all around us. I was fortunate enough to get a little taste of everything while on this fire including cutting line, putting in hose lays, helping hotshot crews with burn operations, holding for aerial ignitions, talking to smokejumpers while they patrolled camp for bears, seeing my first fire whirl on the line; the list goes on. To an aspiring firefighter this experience was a dream come true. Who would have thought that a timid engineering student from Delaware would end up halfway around the world in the middle of the Arctic trying to hold the fireline from being jumped by the most impressive firewhirl I have ever seen, even to this day. It was unbelievable.
My time in fire did not feel like anything more than summer camp until I made my way to Idaho and joined the Helitack crew. It was there that I began to work through the aforementioned taskbooks while taking on leadership type roles and expanding my bubble even further. This crew was composed of older, more experienced firefighters, where I had previously only really worked with college kids just looking for a job during their summers off from school. Many of my co-workers on the Helitack crew had made wildland fire their careers and were supporting their families from afar while we were on the road during the season. The stress of spending such long stretches of time apart from their families was apparent as each season went on. Tempers flared as one month spilled into the next, phone calls back home were longer and more frequent, and the never-ceasing pressure to perform on the line took its toll on the aging firefighters. It opened my eyes to the difficulties that the wildland fire community faces when choosing this as a career path. The aviation side of fire comes with its own unique set of struggles as well, depending on which avenue you decide to take. From pursuing the helicopter manager route to going into fixed wing airspace management, the options may seem more conducive to having a long career in wildland fire. However, realizing that these paths take decades of fireline experience to get the qualifications, let alone any other pilot training that may also be required, was humbling to say the least.
From the low wages to the lack of benefits in the off-season, and the general lack of support from the employing agencies even during the fire season, especially for temporary employees, the wildland fire career is rife with issues that make it a difficult way to earn a living. However, there are certain redeeming factors about the job that are hard to deny and keep people coming back year after year, myself included. The most obvious one to me is that the people you meet, and the camaraderie you feel, both with your crew and also with the entire community, is unmatched. I have never experienced anything like it elsewhere. Wildland firefighters are such a niche group of individuals, that you can probably pick one out of a lineup of random people just by intuition. Fire attracts people that have a deep-rooted desire to help others, and while that can sometimes be difficult to navigate on a crew—for example, 15 pairs of hands all vying for a chainsaw— it is also a very unique thing to experience.
Seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of people all working together towards a common and selfless goal is something that I am unsure I will experience again elsewhere, at least at the same magnitude.
Fighting fire is gratifying because you are working with your friends, completing small daily assignments that all ultimately add up to accomplishing the task of protecting local resources and local communities who are, for the most part, beyond thankful for what you are doing. I cannot count the number of times I have had a mother overcome with emotion thanking us for what we do. Fighting fire has been an amazing way to spend the past four years of my life and I am grateful for every experience and relationship I have made along the way.
Wildland fire has not only given me the confidence to be able to tackle any challenges thrown my way, but also the determination to forge my own path and be successful in what I set my mind to. Because of this, I have been accepted into a pre-medical post-baccalaureate program at Montana State University starting in May of 2023 to complete the prerequisites for medical school. I will be moving to Bozeman, Montana this coming spring with my current partner—whom I met during my time fighting fire—to start down this new path. I have decided to pursue a career in the medical field because fire has made me realize that my main motivation in life is to be as helpful and capable as I possibly can. I obtained my EMT in the spring of 2020 through NOLS in Lander, Wyoming, initially just as a resume booster, but it turned into much more than that. Growing up I had this idea that medicine was a formidable field of study that was impossible to break into. However, during my EMT schooling, I saw how accessible and interesting medicine really is and just how eager everyone is to help in whatever capacity they can. It was exciting to see that the motivations of people in medicine are nearly identical to those of firefighters; they simply want to be useful in difficult situations. Obtaining my EMT opened the door to the idea of medicine as a career and since then, during the fire off-season, I have been working as a Professional Ski Patroller in both Colorado and Montana, gaining real world experience in emergency and outdoor medicine.
It is bittersweet to be leaving my crew this coming season to focus on other pursuits, but I am a much more capable, well-rounded person because of them, and for that I am deeply grateful. I will proudly represent the wildland fire community in my future endeavors in the medical field.
The questions still stand, though. If I could meet him now, what would I talk about with my 18-year-old self? Would I try and guide him down the same path that I have taken? I imagine us discussing our life growing up, reminiscing on the good and hashing out the bad, hopefully with him reminding me of some memories I forgot I even had. I also hope that I would not push him in one direction or another as he navigates the next decade, since I have no regrets in how my life has played out. The one piece of sage advice that I would give him, however, would be to stay flexible and keep his head on a swivel, as he may never know what opportunities will present themselves, and if he leans into the unknown and gets uncomfortable, he might come out on the other side a little bit better off than when he went in.