"Roses are red, Doritos are savory, the prison system is legalized slavery."
It's the same air he puts on in the winter when people I introduce him to ask him what he does for a living... "Me?" he laughs, "Oh, I'm unemployed." I roll my eyes in the background knowing damn well that doesn't fully describe his work status. But the truth of the matter is, he ‘aint ever lyin'... The majority of people who put out forest fires in the summer don't get the honor and respect of a full-time career for their skill and service - they get laid off year after year.
For those of you out there who are unaware - the people wearing blue pressed uniforms, driving your run-of-the-mill fire trucks, are not who put out forest fires.
The people who put out forest fires - the fires we have seen grow in intensity and frequency over the past few years - those people wear green pants, yellow shirts, they drive big box-like buggies and utility trucks, they drop out of airplanes with parachutes, and they repel out of helicopters. These people work for the Department of Agriculture and are called "forestry technicians."
They cut "hotline" - which means they take Pulaskis, chainsaws, and rakes right up to the fire's edge and build a line of dirt around the fire. They work 14 days on (sometimes longer if they are extended to 21) and they come home for two days to rest. You heard me right...after 14 days of completely expending their energy both physically and mentally, they are allotted only two days of rest with their families before they're on to the next one.
The only reason they don't complain about this is because those long summers with constant rolls (14 day assignments) are the only way they make enough money to pay their bills. My husband has been on the frontline of forestry for four years as a hotshot and he gets paid $16.73 an hour. The custodian at my work gets paid more than him.
Instead of giving forestry technicians the pay, benefits, and title they deserve - the Department of Agriculture has them chasing a carrot. The carrot is just this - they love what they do. The chase is how to make a living doing what they love. So each summer they chase the fires - gaining overtime and hazard pay so that they can pay their bills and justify doing their dream job.
I remember the first month I was dating my husband. We were out and about in downtown Sacramento walking home late at night when all of a sudden we heard a scream. I looked one direction and when I turned around the other direction, Eric was already across the street. "Eric!," I yelled, "What're you doing?" Then we heard laughter - it was some kids messing around. Eric walked back across the street nonchalantly. Looking aghast I asked,
"Why the hell did you run toward the scream?" He shrugged, "I don't know - to help."
I remember being annoyed at first. Oh sure, he was going to leave me vulnerable to go save some random person, I thought, but now I see it all so clearly. We need people like my husband. When I say "we," I'm not just talking about California, I'm talking about society - the world. The world needs all kinds of people—that's what makes the world go round—but my husband is one of those rare breeds that we need and that there aren't very many of.
There are a lot of people who pretend to be like my husband. People with hero complexes - who live their whole life searching for validation. That's not what my husband is like. Eric genuinely thinks that what he does is selfish. He thinks leaving me to put out forest fires threatening hundreds of lives is selfish because he gets joy out of what he does. When people bring things into the fire camp, my husband and other Forest Service employees thank them but deny the gifts and instead suggest people take those gifts to those affected by the fires nearby.
"I have everything I need," Eric says, as he inhales a freeze-dried dinner and passes out exhausted and covered in soot in a sleeping bag on the forest floor. That's who these "forestry technicians" are.
No, they're not your run-of-the-mill firefighters. They won't pose next to their shiny cars with kids holding signs thanking them for work they didn't do. They don't sit around and watch movies or TV most of the day. They don't spray water on houses on the outskirt of a fire.
They singe their hair by getting in too close to the flaming front of the fire to tie in the last edge of line. They herniate discs in their back from carrying chainsaws, bar oil, and gas five miles in steep country to get to a fire before it gets to the neighborhood. They sleep out in the wilderness eating only MREs for 14 days straight with no cell phone service to connect with their family, loved ones, or children.
So who's the firefighter really?
Look, I'm happy for those other types of firefighters. I'm glad they get paid well and have wonderful benefits. I'm glad their partners are supported through their benefits and livable wage. We don't have to take that away to do right by my husband.
All I'm asking is for him to be treated with the same respect.