Most of my memories of that first season are just a blur – a blur of exhaustion, pain, and hard work.
In addition to the blur, I had no concept about the quality of my performance other than my desire to somehow work as hard as the Herculean Hotshots to the right and left of me.
But towards the end of that first season, during a particularly long and strenuous shift on the infamously rugged Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho, a hard-nosed supervisor I greatly admired looked at me as if he was peering into my soul and deadpanned, "Papich… you're a Hotshot." With that statement, with that recognition, his stare returned to the task at hand, and we continued laboriously digging fireline. To this day, seven fire seasons and countless backbreaking shifts on the fireline later, it is the only recognition that matters to me and one I've had the honor of passing onto others in the years since, from a fellow Hotshot for being a Hotshot.
This career is not about recognition, or accolades, or parades, or making a lot of money because, let's be honest, absolutely none of those things will come to fruition even if they were the motivating factor.
Where hotshots operate, the fire is too intense, the slopes are too steep, the air too smoky, and the trees too burned out for the news cameras, or the public or even the majority of other firefighting personnel incident to ever recognize the work that we do. This is not said to be dramatic; this is the reality. The amount of time and energy that I devote in the off-season to my profession, my amazingly supportive wife, and I reflect my chosen career's realities and requirements.
My immediate priority is to refocus my time and energy on vigorously embracing my role as an active and present partner and husband to my incredibly strong, successful, and supportive wife. This is the most important thing to me as I transition to the non-fire-season version of me.I set out to nurture and rebuild our relationship's health because, at my most honest appraisal, our relationship is the foundation through which I can continue to do this job and willingly sacrifice time spent with her and our 11-year-old black lab, Napa. Too often, I've seen the choice between this career and a happy, healthy relationship at home tips in favor of this career. Not that this sad reality doesn't permeate throughout our society; however, it does seem amplified, if not magnified, in the Hotshot community. Too often, it seems like the career requires more and more time and energy at the expense of everything else; hours worked but not paid for; projects more critical than an anniversary or birthday. A career as a Hotshot shouldn't have to be a zero-sum career path. Either you're a successful and dedicated Hotshot, or you have a healthy and equitable relationship that lasts long after the thrills of the job.
Is this our choice?
I love working on a Hotshot crew, and my wife is incredibly proud of what I do. At the same time, I love my wife, and I am incredibly proud and supportive of her career. How do you balance that? Is my career so much more important than hers that she must continuously sacrifice and accept in deference my more "noble endeavor"? Absolutely not. I reject the notion that I can't continue this career while simultaneously enjoying a balanced and passionate life with my wife. From my relationship forward, re-calibration begins with re-prioritizing my wife and maximizing our time together doing the things we most enjoy. I want to make sure my wife still loves me; I want her to remember why she fell in love with me. Secure in that; then my focus can shift to my own personal physical and mental well-being.
The all-consuming Forestry Technician career absolutely presents a struggle for reflection while refocusing aspirations and intentions on goals or activities that achieve professional and personal endeavors. I've found that for myself, I need and require some decompression time once my fire season is over to re-calibrate my life. I take stock of the events and lessons of the last six-plus months, then apply those lessons to the following fire season to make myself a better Hotshot and leader. Simultaneously, I identify aspirations and goals for the off-season that further my personal growth outside of the silo of my professional development as a forestry technician. It's a necessary and essential balancing act I try to perform, not to get burnt out with the job – easier said than done.
I'm 35 years old, and come October, with the cumulative effect of a fire season's worth of tweaks and minor injuries, I am beat the hell down. Anymore, I find myself putting off personal trips and activities I enjoy to see doctors, physical therapists, masseuses, etc., to alleviate whatever ailing remnant of fire season that is impeding my life.
The amount of time and money spent out of pocket for these necessities is frankly depressingly asinine. It's a stressful, red-lining race against the calendar as days pass by like hours on the way to the next fire season. I investment in my health for the sole purpose to perform my job at the standard by which a Hotshot is expected to perform.
Always in the back of my head is the daunting reality that I am one moderate injury away from not being able to pay my bills; one moderate injury away from ending my career as a forestry technician. And thus, the time and energy I dedicate to my preparation for each fire season tips increasingly in favor of this career and at the expense of personal activities and goals. Lucky for me, I have the strength and support of my amazing wife, but so many others in our community cannot rely on any outside support. And yet the job continues to pull us back season after season because that is what a Hotshot does.